France’s Regional Elections: Sarkozy Down?

You’ll probably see a lot of headlines today about how French President Nicolas Sarkozy took a beating in the first round of France’s regional elections yesterday. Take it with a grain of salt. Abstention hit a record in the low 50 percent range (i.e., most voters stayed home), the election was an off-year regional affair with no national impact, and it’s hard to imagine any incumbent doing that well in the current economic climate. It’s also unclear whether the Socialists and the Green coalition that came in third nationally will be able to work together to cut the necessarily deals for the second-round voting next weekend. Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw some conclusions:

– Despite Sarkozy’s success at peeling away Front National voters in 2007, Sunday’s results demonstrate that, among the die-hard voters that went to the polls, there is a residual pool of FN constituents that is not going away. I’d put it at roughly 10 percent nationally, which means that depending on other factors — such as a weak economy and a poorly timed Sarkozy effort to inject xenophobia into the campaign — France will continue to have an “FN problem” for the foreseeable future.

– Two factors suggest that the Socialist Party’s victory will sow the seeds of their future defeat. First, in strengthening the respective leadership claims of both party Chairwoman Martine Aubry (who comes out on top in the first domestic election she managed) and ex-presidential candidate Ségolène Royal (who led a stronger-than-national-average showing in her region), it did nothing to put to rest an eventual leadership struggle between the two, who nearly succeeded at splitting the party the last time that happened. And second, the strong showing of the governing-free Europe Ecology coalition suggests that the left has seduced on the basis of its identity, not its policies.

– Sarkozy is cooked. What? Didn’t I just say to take the headlines with a grain of salt? Yes, but it’s not the voters I’m talking about — although they, too, are tired of the agitated stage persona with little results to show for it. I’m thinking more of the internal politics of his center-right coalition. Minus the reasonable wing of the FN that he managed to peel away in 2007, Sarkozy has to appeal to too broad a range of voters, yes, but more importantly too broad a range of party leaders, when his leadership style is divide and conquer. From the Chiraco-Gaullist flank (Villepin) to the UMP “faithful” (Fillon and Cope) to the New Center (Morin), there are too many sharks and too much blood in the water now for him to pull it off. Given the uncertainty that unity will carry the day, there’s little incentive for any of them to put their ambition in the passenger seat.

My hunch (for more than a year now) is that Sarkozy doesn’t run again in 2012. He has a flair for drama. After all, he trusted the writing of his campaign “biography” to a playwright, Yasmina Reza. And what would be more dramatic than walking off stage while the spotlight circles around trying to find him?

For far more educated analysis, take a look at what Art Goldhammer has to say (that’s a sound general rule, by the way, too), as well as Charles Bremner.