France: Another Win for Sarkozy

Was it only six weeks ago that political suspense reigned in Paris cafés? Could conservative Nicolas Sarkozy really win the nation’s highest office? People wondered if he might be thwarted by the Socialists’ comely comer, Ségolène Royal. Or perhaps even trumped by the engaging centrist François Bayrou? Well, no. And since Sarko’s triumph on May 6, this take-charge kind of guy has, yes, taken charge. In the first round of legislative elections yesterday, his UMP party steamrollered much of the opposition and it looks very likely to finish the job in runoffs next Sunday. So here’s a prediction for the next five years of French politics: all-Sarko all the time.

Of the 577-member National Assembly, a record 110 candidates were elected outright last night by winning more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. Of those, 98 are from Sarkozy’s UMP party. Only one is a Socialist. Projections for next Sunday are wide-ranging, but all forecast a Sarko landslide. With between 383 and 501 seats for the right (compared to 60 to 185 for the left), this will be the first time since 1978 that power in parliament won’t have changed hands from one election to the next.

As Sarkozy racked up incredibly high poll numbers over the past month (a run of proposed tax breaks apparently expunging memories of the polarizing, riot-inspiring figure he’d been portrayed as only weeks before), his parliamentary victory took on the air of fait accompli. Indeed, while last month’s presidential elections set a record for voter turnout (nearly 84 percent), many registered voters took yesterday off like any other sunny Sunday in June--setting a record for voter abstention (39.5 percent).

In fairness to those absentees, the Socialists looked like they’d taken a hike, too. Acrimonious squabbling among contenders for party leadership began live on television minutes after Sarkozy’s election was announced, and the current Party Secretary François Hollande soon stopped talking victory and started warning against the dangers if the left faced a “crushing” defeat.

In the event, the Socialists themselves might have done worse yesterday. The party’s 24.7 percent of the vote is actually better than it did in the first rounds of the two previous legislative elections. But the minor left-wing parties that used to fall into line behind the Socialists did miserably, so the left as a whole is likely to be insignificant on the floor of the National Assembly.

In fact, the Socialists are not only headed for some soul-searching, they may soon present a very public display of disaffection. Last night, Royal made it obvious that she is looking to edge out Hollande, her longtime partner and the father of her children, as party leader. She signaled her intentions by addressing the country about the election results only minutes after he did. Today, the Socialist couple seemed divided on whether or not to solicit Bayrou for an alliance this week, with Hollande publicly cool to the idea.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy has managed to bring supporters of one traditionally nettlesome party on the right, the National Front, into the UMP fold. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s candidates, with 4.29 percent, notched up their lowest legislative election score since 1981.

François Bayrou, whose tractor-branded aw-shucks image earned him a fleeting flood of support and magazine covers in March, may find himself sitting alone in the parliamentary cafeteria. A would-be king- or queen-maker only five weeks ago, Bayrou tried to parlay his strong third-place showing in the first-round of presidential elections (18 percent) into a new breakaway centrist party, the Mouvement Démocratique (preciously known as the MoDem).

But today the spotlight flickers. Bayrou’s party earned only 7.61 percent of yesterday’s votes. The MoDem can now score no better than four deputies next Sunday, and could be reduced to one: Bayrou himself. That’s well short of the 20 members needed to form a parliamentary group that gets vital government subsidies. Meanwhile, Bayrou’s erstwhile mates, the ones who stuck with the right under the name Nouveau Centre and have joined forces with Sarkozy, probably will top the 20-plus threshold. Sarkozy’s defense minister, Hervé Morin, once close to Bayrou, won his seat outright yesterday (50.5 percent) and won’t have to face a second-round ballot Sunday. The Bayrou candidate Morin faced, Philippe Raviart, scored only 5.4 percent.

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