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31 March 2014

French Socialists humiliated in local elections

Good news for Ukip, bad news for Labour.

By Raphael Gray

France went to the polls yesterday to vote for mayors and councillors in over 36,000 municipalities. Results have barely made headlines in Britain. But all agree that the news is catastrophic for President Francois Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party, in what most have interpreted as a referendum on the state of national government.

The Socialists were braced for humiliation. Last’s week’s first-round elections saw them poll 43 per cent of the popular vote versus the 48 per cent garnered by the conservative UMP opposition. Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National (FN) won a respectable 7 per cent of the country and managed to capture outright the northern town of Hénin-Beaumont. That was a remarkable achievement for a party once associated with thuggery and anti-Semitism, but which is now positioned as a eurosceptic insurgency.

The Socialists lost 151 large towns and cities on Sunday, although they retain control of Paris, which welcomes its first female mayor. The victory of Spanish-born Anne Hidalgo will offer a template for the expected candidacies of Oona King, Diane Abbott and Tessa Jowell in the 2016 London mayoral race. But Paris was the left’s only consolation on a day Le Monde called “a bloodbath of which we find no equivalent in the history of municipal elections”. Turnout was 63.5 per cent, which is high by British standards but historically low for a country in which mayors wield considerable power.

Voters have delivered a damning verdict on the Socialist presidency. They are above all frustrated by Hollande’s management of an economy whose key indicators are lagging behind those of Germany and the UK. French unemployment edged above 4.9 million in February, whilst growth and foreign investment remain in a slump. Hollande’s style of leadership – widely perceived as amateurish – is another object of dissatisfaction. The president’s approval ratings have been in freefall for months, and he now has the distinction of being the most unpopular leader in the history of the Fifth Republic. A cabinet reshuffle is imminent; Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will almost certainly be shown the door. He has already taken partial blame for the Socialist rout on national television.

British observers will draw lessons from events across the Channel. UKIP should be encouraged by the wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment carrying insurgents like Le Pen and Geert Wilders – the peroxide populist who heads the Dutch Party for Freedom – up national polls. The FN has shown how vulnerable mainstream parties are to hardline eurosceptics in economically depressed and ethnically diverse communities. Marseille, France’s troubled second city, remains in the hands of Jean-Claude Gaudin of the UMP, but FN support there is on the rise.

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Ed Miliband will of course be alarmed by the decline of the French left. The Labour leader welcomed Hollande’s election in May 2012 as a blow against Teutonic austerity, but the socialist alternative in France has proved neither successful nor popular. High tax policies have generated unrest in Paris and Brittany, while Hollande’s 75 per cent super levy on millionaires (compare to Milband’s support for the 50p rate on top earners) has upset football clubs and led to the prominent exile of actor Gérard Depardieu, who now attacks Parisian bolshevism from the safety of Vladimir Putin’s court.

Miliband and Hollande also share a political personality. Both have fashioned themselves as honest, serious, old-fashioned leftists standing in opposition to scandal-ridden conservative regimes. But Hollande’s reputation for dullness will unnerveLabour strategists who are struggling to contain similar allegations against their leader. Red in western Europe is becoming grey.

Britain next goes to the polls in May for the European Parliament. That vote will most likely produce similar stories about the ascendancy of the eurosceptic right. Voters on both sides of the Channel are showing themselves increasingly willing to punish mainstream parties for the failure to tackle an economic crisis that has been rumbling on for seven years.

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