Paris: Centre right party has emerged as the official winner of French regional elections despite a surge of support for the National Front.
On Sunday, Mr Sarkozy saluted the party’s decision to unite with the centrists for the polls. “This mobilisation should not lead us to forget the warning sent to all political leaders in the first round,” he said. The Socialist party, which had triumphed in the previous 2010 regional elections, suffered a beating.
But the poor economic record of President François Hollande including record high unemployment had left many dreading a more crushing defeat. But the former president is left with tougher choices than the far-right party and even the ruling Socialist party, ahead of the presidential elections in 2017.
The Republicans, who joined forces with the centrists, won seven regions out of 13 on Sunday, including Ile de France and Rhône-Alpes, two economic centres. Meanwhile, the Socialist party retained five regions. Local nationalists won in Corsica.
But in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, centre-right candidates only managed to fend off the FN with votes from the left, after the Socialist party instructed its candidates to step aside to help defeat the far-right party.
“I want to thank Socialist voters who clearly voted to bar” said Xavier Bertrand, who won in the north, a former coal-mining Socialist stronghold.
The twist deprives Mr Sarkozy of a sweeping validation of his strategy to lean to the right to try and recapture part of the FN’s electorate. The lack of clarity may fuel internal rivalries between those backing a rightward shift and those, including Alain Juppé, who advocate a move to the centre, according to Bruno Cautrès.
“It’s complicated for Nicolas Sarkozy because it’s not a clear victory,” Mr Cautrès says. On the plus side for the president, the poll has helped the Socialist party reassert its leadership over the other leftist groups: The green party, which left the government last year after disagreeing with the president’s pro-business shift, suffered big losses. This validates the shift to the centre initiated last year by Manuel Valls, the reformist prime minister.
On Sunday, the premier showed no willingness to review his market-oriented policies. “I measure my responsibility. I will act without respite and faster to get results,” Mr Valls said.
By sacrificing candidates in two regions, President Hollande has also positioned himself as the true opponent to the National Front, a posture that he will probably keep until the presidential elections when he seeks a second term, reflects Mr Cautrès.
By contrast, Mr Sarkozy’s message was blurred: he instructed his candidates to neither strike a deal with the Socialists nor withdraw from the race even when they had little chance of beating the FN.
For Ms Le Pen, the polls are a disappointment and a personal defeat since she ran in Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The FN party leader counted on at least one regional government to build her operations and a track record ahead of 2017.
But the anti-FN campaign in the second round gives strength to her portrayal of a political caste that strikes deals to exclude her. This could galvanise her electorate, says Laurent Bouvet, a professor at Versailles university.