Not So Fast

It’s not quite “Dewey beats Truman”, given that they didn’t actually win the election. But in turning back the UMP’s forecasted “blue tsunami”, the Socialists did manage to take some of the polish off of Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory. Given up for dead just last week, the PS not only avoided a humiliating defeat that had seemed all but certain, they gained (along with their PRG allies) more than fifty seats over their 2002 results. Combined with the small Communist and Green delegations, they limited Sarkosy’s UMP and its allies on the right and center to a 60 percent parliamentary majority, instead of the predicted 70-75 percent.

It’s a testament to how low expectations were that the results reinvigorated the Socialists’ flagging spirits. But while the second-round surge served as a political reprieve for the beleaguered party, it was unclear how lasting the impact would be on its longterm stability. It certainly did nothing to resolve the structural problems that make a clarification of ideology and leadership increasingly necessary. Split between a left-wing determined to preserve the party’s traditional progressive posture, and a social-democrat faction veering increasingly towards the electorally promising center, it seems the PS can only set aside its internal differences when faced with potential disaster.

And even that for only short periods at a time, as demonstrated Sunday evening by a headline announcing in the same breath the separation of the party’s reigning power couple, Ségolène Royal and François Hollande, and Royal’s intention to succeed Hollande as party chairman. No sooner do the Socialists dodge a bullet, it seems, than they re-load the gun and take aim at their foot once again. As it happens, Royal emerges from the election with her position if not strengthened, then at least not weakened. While she herself was not a candidate, many people were watching the fate of her closest allies within the party as a barometer of her influence. Of the four who faced difficulty in first-round voting, three managed to eke out victories, sparing her political embarrassment. But her primary rivals within the party, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Laurent Fabius, also won their seats comfortably.

More than a Socialist resurgence, the vote demonstrated that while French voters might be ready to embrace the change that Sarkozy has promised, they felt it wise to maintain a strong and healthy opposition to watch over him. And for the time being, the PS represents the only legitimate counterbalance to a UMP all-too-willing to play to type as a party that grows arrogant with power. After Sarkozy’s presidential victory, the government of Prime Minister François Fillon took great pains to avoid confrontational rhetoric and emphasize its commitment to dialogue and bi-partisanship. But in the week since the first-round legislative results suggested a landslide UMP majority, there was a subtle but noticeable change in pitch. A note of disdain crept into their remarks about the weakened PS, and a hint of impatience seemed to characterize the legislative schedule of reforms they announced.

Most damaging, though, were Fillon’s remarks in an interview this week about what is commonly called “the social sales tax”, but which Fillon has tried to re-define as an “anti-outsourcing tax”. The measure calls for reducing social security charges on payroll taxes paid by corporations and making up the revenue with a five percent increase in the national sales tax. Proponents maintain that it would encourage companies to keep jobs in France without raising prices, because the reduction in payroll costs would be passed along to consumers. Opponents consider it an effort to shift the burden of the social welfare system to those who can least afford to shoulder it . Either way, it’s a wildly unpopular idea that Fillon seemed to off-handedly suggest had already been decided upon.

Needless to say, with widespread concerns about the rising cost of living, it was at best a politically insensitive moment to mention the measure, which isn’t even planned to be introduced until next year. At worst, it was an example of a fundamental social injustice at the heart of Sarkozy’s fiscal program, which calls for reducing taxes on wealth and inheritance while raising the most regressive tax of all, the sales tax, all in the name of “working more to earn more”. The backlash was sharp enough that Sarkozy himself, on a state visit to Poland, felt obliged to intervene on his Prime Minister’s behalf, indicating that the sales tax would only be increased once consumer prices had been demonstrably reduced. But the Socialists seized on the issue as an example of the danger of leaving the right unchecked, and it dominated the final days of the parliamentary campaign.

If the Socialists find themselves celebrating what still amounts to a defeat, they are not alone. François Bayrou can also take some satisfaction in having outstripped expectations. Seen by everyone as the big loser after the first round of voting, Bayrou faced the possibility of being the only member of Parliament to represent his new Mouvement Démocrate party. Instead, MoDem candidates won five out of six run-offs they contested, and exit polling suggests that their voters proved decisive in a number of close races ultimately won by PS candidates.

If the election delivered one over-riding message, though, it was that French voters would like some time to consider the changes that the past five months have wrought on the political landscape. In sparing the PS an electoral meltdown, they have allowed the party to restructure itself with composure and thoughtfulness, instead of in the mad scramble of a fire sale. As things stand, Hollande will remain chairman until the party congress called for next fall, where the competing factions will present their programs to an internal vote. The winner will assume control of the party. How the losers respond will largely determine the Socialists’ future.

Bayrou, too, won the opportunity to develop his vision of a Christian democrat party in a country that views the center with suspicion. Clearly, whatever support he retained from his presidential bid slanted left. He now has five years to convince the center-right that abandoned him for the comfort of a governmental majority that a centrist coalition straddling the partisan divide offers a viable alternative to the traditional right-left split in French politics.

As for Sarkozy, the election represents his first political stumble in what had been up to now a flawless start out of the blocks. The break in stride is more than just symbolic. Having asked his ministers to present themselves for parliament as a way of legitimizing their mandate, Sarkozy saw his no. 2, Alain Juppé, lose a run-off in what should have been an easy race. The protocols of French politics being strict in such circumstances, Juppé immediately announced his resignation from the government effective Monday morning. To fill his place, Sarkozy was forced to juggle his government just a month after having announced it, although he insisted this would not disrupt his legislative schedule.

Known as “the man in a hurry” for his hyper-active working style and ambition, Sarkozy still plans to present his comprehensive package of initial reforms to a special summer session of Parliament as early as July. Obviously, a 60% majority still affords him the ability get it passed. But in giving him a comfortable working majority, French voters at the same time put him on guard that he might be in more of a hurry than they are.