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The French Election’s Lesson for Conservatives


As the French election results roll in, I find myself in a small minority. My feeling is that they do not quite support the apparently universal belief that President Sarkozy is utterly doomed to lose to socialist François Hollande in the second round on May 6. Hollande certainly enters the second round as the front-runner, but only by a short nose. He was less than two points ahead of Sarkozy in the last figures that I saw. The three candidates who finished just behind the two leaders got between them about 40 percent of the vote. A lot of votes have now been freed to go in all sorts of directions.

Consider next the breakdown of that 40 percent of liberated voters. Marine Le Pen of the National Front seems to have won almost 20 percent of the electorate. That is just about equal to the combined total of those supporting the far Left and the centrist party. The far-left voters will naturally swing heavily towards Hollande; the centrists will vote disproportionately for Sarkozy. Those swings should put Hollande a little further ahead of the president than he is tonight — let’s say 4 to 5 percent ahead. So if Sarkozy is to recover and win, he has to pick up a net 5 percent lead over Hollande from among the National Front voters. Given that these voters are more tough-minded, nationalistic, and traditionalist than average, Sarkozy might just manage to do that.

It would be both a close-run thing, and a massive achievement, but it is just about possible. Watching Sarkozy try will be high political drama.

Mario Loyola explains persuasively in his post why Marine Le Pen will fight hard to finish off Sarkozy by discouraging her voters from switching to him. She has put herself and her National Front within a handful of percentage points of the governing center-right party. Her aim going beyond the next fortnight is to replace the main conservative party. If Sarkozy falls this year, he will be finished permanently and his party will be weakened and divided for years to come. Ms. Le Pen probably feels too that this time the Socialists are winning — and barely winning — by default. They offer no strong governing philosophy and have lukewarm and shrinking electoral support. When they fail in government, as they are almost guaranteed to do, she will be the beneficiary. And the National Front, by then respectable or at least accepted as a fact of political life, will enter office either alone or in coalition.

All this is heady stuff. It may come to pass. #more#The first part of it — Sarkozy’s defeat — probably will come to pass. But the trouble with all grand political strategies is that an awful lot can go wrong with them. In this case the assumption that could prove false is that the National Front voters on Sunday were her voters. They are more likely to think that Ms. Le Pen was their candidate. And rather than follow her advice (implicit or explicit) to crush Sarkozy in order to advance her long-term ambitions, they may simply follow their own instincts and vote for the less left-wing of the two remaining candidates. If they do, Sarkozy may survive; if he doesn’t survive, that will be because he has disappointed their nationalist and traditionalist hopes over a long period of time.

And this is where I differ a little from Mr. Loyola’s analysis. Sarkozy does not strike me as even remotely a representative of free trade and free markets. If he were such a paragon, moreover, he would have lost more heavily yesterday. France’s political culture is statist, interventionist, and collectivist across the spectrum. Sarkozy has some sensible if modest reforms — pension reform especially — to his credit. He is feisty, combative and – yes — as Mr. Loyola points out, he gets up people’s noses. Within the European Union, however, he has been a consistent voice for more intervention, picking “European” winners, tax harmonization (upwards), massive regulation of international finance, and above all for clamping the “one-size-eventually-fits-no-one” euro on the entire continent, with visibly terrible results.

Daniel Hannan’s verdict on the election seems right: “Whoever Wins — France Faces a Grumpy Socialism.” And I write that with no pleasure and no little egg on my face since, five years ago in a speech in Paris, I welcomed Sarkozy’s election as the last best hope of Western conservatism.

Sarkozy’s fate is now, however, an awful warning to conservatism throughout Europe and even in the U.S. Since the end of the Cold War, mainstream conservative parties have thought they could safely dispense with patriotic voters disturbed by the drift of power from nation-states to undemocratic transnational institutions. They ignored their complaints about the loss of democratic accountability and the diminution of national sovereignty as old-fashioned and irrelevant. They believed those voters, long a staple element in conservative coalitions, had nowhere else to go. Well, as Mr. Loyola points out — and here we may agree again — these voters have joined new coalitions with left-leaning voters motivated by economic insecurity under the auspices of insurgent parties of Left and Right. That has happened across Europe and, indeed, the advanced world. And where insurgent parties were not available, they have stayed at home — and the mainstream center-right parties have gradually become weaker, less connected with the voters, more reliant on public relations and opinion management, and increasingly rooted in a transnational political class.

The lesson for conservatives is a very simple one: They must put together enduring domestic coalitions of economic conservatives, nationalist conservatives, and social conservatives. It’s a serious, long-term task — and for Sarkozy a very urgent one.


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