French President Francois Hollande saw his Socialist Party battered and bruised in local elections this week. The embarrassing results send a clear message that voters are frustrated with the lack of progress being made in the two years since Hollande captured the Elysee Palace from the center-right incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The ferocious losses for the Socialist were widespread and put a number of supposedly safe city councils at risk. Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement showed strong gains across the country and is in a strong position for next week's second round of voting. Unfortunately, the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, also did very well, throwing a wrench into some of the electoral calculations for the runoff.
Under the French system, a candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round wins outright. If no one crosses the threshold, the top two vote-getters run again one week later. This can provide for the reversal of initial results. For example, the mayoral race in Paris saw the conservative Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet receive more votes than Socialist Anne Hidalgo, but it is expected that in the second round, the Greens will direct members to support the left-leaning Hidalgo.
This pattern of strategic voting could see National Front candidates blocked from winning next week. Under the "republican pact" that has been in place for the past 30 years, mainstream French parties have consistently agreed to vote in such a way in the runoff election so as to block the extremist National Front candidates from getting into office. If the Socialists and the UMP were to uphold this tradition again, it would be difficult for Le Pen to build on the first round's momentum. Interestingly, the pact applies only to the far-right National Front. The Socialist Party does not similarly distance itself from far-left parties, an inconsistency that UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope pointed out this week.
Only a few years ago, in 2008, the National Front appeared to be well past its prime. Its resurgence has been caused in part by the transfer of leadership from the party's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to his daughter Marine, as well as the widespread resentment building toward unchecked immigration and the vast, out-of-touch European bureaucracy in Brussels. A strong result in the runoff would provide credible evidence that Le Pen has succeeded in mainstreaming the National Front.
If strategic voting is not fully implemented in the second round, then important French cities such as Avignon, Perpignan and Beziers could find themselves under National Front control. Concerns are already being raised about the impact of such victories. For example, Olivier Py, director of the internationally renowned Avignon Festival, has stated in no uncertain terms that he would relocate the arts festival to another city if Le Pen's party were to capture the mayor's office. To Py and many like him, the National Front's anti-immigrant rhetoric runs counter to French values.
Where should French voters turn now? The Socialists have failed to deliver the growth-without-austerity that they promised. Sarkozy was dumped just two years ago after a single term when many in France grew tired of his bling-bling style and micromanaging approach to governance. Some on the right are hinting that Sarkozy is well-positioned to swoop back into national politics and recapture the Elysee Palace. However, scandals still dog the former president, as prosecutions for corruption continue to work their way through the French judicial system.
There are important lessons to be learned across Europe regarding the continued rise of extremist parties. France is not alone. Brussels, out of touch with the needs and priorities of everyday Europeans, may be driving more and more disgruntled voters into the arms of parties like the National Front in France, such as the Freedom Party in the Netherlands. As the financial crisis has rocked the economic foundations of Europe in recent years, cracks have become evident in the political foundation, as well. The easy consensus that the European Union was unquestionably a force for good is now being questioned more often across the continent.
It is unclear whether the bureaucrats in Brussels and the mainstream political parties in the various member states will be able to provide fresh solutions that resonate with European voters within the framework of a European Union that looks increasingly aloof and outdated. In addition to being a referendum on the tenure of Hollande, next week's runoff may provide some insight into just how deep the seismic realignment of partisan politics across Europe will become.
Perhaps even a European answer to the tea party is in the works. It would be interesting to see how the insular Brussels elite could respond to such a broad-based challenge.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.