Oise 2nd by-election (France)

A legislative by-election was held in the Oise’s second constituency in France on March 17 and 24, 2013. The results of the June 2012 legislative election in the constituency were declared invalid by the Constitutional Council, for reasons related to false statements in the incumbent deputy’s campaign propaganda. A by-election was held on the same day in Wallis-et-Futuna’s at-large constituency; these were the fourth and fifth legislative by-elections since the June 2012 elections: by-elections were held in Hérault (6), Hauts-de-Seine (13) and Val-de-Marne (1) in December after the initial results of the June 2012 elections were invalidated in these three constituencies. There are two pending by-elections in the constituencies for French citizens abroad (constituencies 1 and 8), the results of the June 2012 election in those two seats were also recently invalidated by the  Constitutional Council but a date has not yet been set for the by-elections.

French legislative elections or by-elections are fought on a two-round system. A candidate must win over 50% of valid votes representing at least 25% of registered voters to win outright by the first round. If a second round is organized, all candidates who have won over 12.5% of registered voters are qualified for the runoff; or, if no candidates meet this requirement, the top two candidates in the first round. In by-elections were turnout is almost always lows, this means that only the top two candidates will qualify.

The incumbent deputy in Oise’s 2nd constituency, reelected in June, was Jean-François Mancel of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). The incumbent deputy in Wallis-et-Futuna, elected in June, was David Vergé, classified as a right-winger but who sat with the Socialist (PS) group. In Wallis-et-Futuna, the ConCon also declared Vergé and some other candidates from the June 2012 to be ineligible for any elected office for a period of one year.

Context

These by-elections come at a bad time for the incumbent centre-left government. Less than a year after he defeated incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande is nearing record levels of unpopularity, his approval ratings having sunk faster than any other President under the Fifth Republic. His approval rating currently stands at about 31%, the lowest for any President after ten months in office and approaching the record lows set by Jacques Chirac in his second term (mid to low 20s). Part of this unpopularity stems from the particular politcal and economic conjuncture. The French economy, like that of most of its neighbors, remains weak with high unemployment, low economic growth and a large public debt. The situation, naturally, was never going to brighten up miraculously with the election of a new head of state. Secondly, Hollande’s victory in May 2012 owed a lot to the ephemeral appeal of anti-Sarkozysm on the left and parts of the centre. As I noted in my analysis of the runoff last year, “the fact that the election was more Sarkozy’s defeat than Hollande’s victory and that Hollande owes his victory to anti-Sarkozysm will certainly come back to haunt the PS and Hollande in the near future, once voters forget Sarkozy and shift their judgement to the new incumbent.” While the economic context has further aggravated matters, a good part of the government’s unpopularity is of their own making.

Faced with an ever bleaker economic picture – unemployment at 10% and up nearly 1% on the previous years, flat economic growth in 2012 and a high public debt (90%) – the government has suffered heavily from the perception that it is slow to react and that it has found itself completely lost and powerless against the economic crisis. The right, which disliked Hollande from the get-go, has criticized the ‘amateurism’ and jumbled response of the government and decried its economic policies (the UMP has placed particular emphasis on higher taxes). But many on the left have felt let down by the government on the economic front. It was fairly clear that for all of the PS’s flowery rhetoric about growth, it would be forced to implement austerity measures including spending cuts in the public sector (the public sector is a PS stronghold); and it has done so, although it has disguised it as ‘efforts’. Hollande had promised to renegotiate the European Fiscal Compact to give it a more ‘pro-growth’ orientation, but he and his governing majority ultimately approved it without any major changes. The Constitutional Council has also forced him to scrap, entirely, his much-publicized 75% tax on incomes over a million euros. For many voters on the left, very little positive change is perceptible and many voters feel that Hollande’s policies are no different than his predecessor’s policies.

On a whole slew of other issues and campaign promises, the government has either ‘delayed’ reforms or watered them down fairly significantly. For example, because it lacks a three-fifths majority to pass major constitutional changes, a number of promised constitutional reforms have been have been written off the agenda. Faced with major internal unease within its own majority, the government has ‘delayed’ – probably indefinitely – a major reform to crack down on dual office holding (cumul des mandats). Proportional representations seems, once agian, to have been lost somewhere along the road. The latest round of ‘decentralization reforms’ which seem to be obligatory for every President has been delayed, held up in the Senate and met with the wrath of some local officials. While the government will likely be able to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption rights eventually, it has mobilized social conservative groups and is widely rejected by the quasi-entirety of the opposition.

On the symbolic aspect of things, Hollande had made a big deal of Sarkozy’s centralizing, autocratic and flashy (bling-bling) presidential system and he famously presented himself as the ‘normal President’ in contrast to the ‘hyper-President’ Sarkozy. Yet, the symbolic changes at that level have been slow to come. The ‘normal president’ mantra was quickly dropped. By choosing his close ally Jean-Marc Ayrault as Prime Minister (rather than party rival Martine Aubry, for example) Hollande signaled that he was continuing in Sarkozy’s, rather than Mitterrand’s, footsteps by choosing a close ally and partner as Prime Minister. While the left criticized Sarkozy for sidelining the Prime Minister and concentrating powers in the executive branch, Hollande has done largely the same. Ayrault, ten months down the road, appears effaced and a mere ‘sidekick’ in comparison to his President.

Having been in opposition for ten years upon taking office last spring, the PS and the wider ‘presidential majority’ has had some trouble adapting to the rigours of governing. Cabinet ministers, from early on, have contradicted each other or diverged from the government line publicly, and Ayrault has often appeared powerless or unable to put his ministers back in place. And the government has been hit by its first ethics scandal: the budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, a respected figure, was forced to resign on March 19 after facing allegations of tax fraud and a secret bank account in Switzerland. Meanwhile, some signs of internal disagreements between the PS and its minor allies (particularly the Greens/EELV) have appeared on some issues, while the Left Front (FG) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Communist Party (PCF) have been vocal critics of government policies.

A few government ministers have been able to escape the government’s unpopularity. Top amongst them is Manuel Valls, the Interior minister, who is the most popular in France at the moment with wide support on the left and right. He has largely continued his right-wing predecessors’ tough crime and immigration policies, notably by continuing the expulsion of the Roma and dismantling illegal ‘squatter settlements’. Valls’ tough policies on crime, security and immigration has the right worried that the PS might be succeeding at ‘reappropriating’ the security issue from them.

Despite the government’s unpopularity, the right-wing opposition has had trouble appearing as a better alternative. Sarkozy’s right-wing party, the UMP, was almost torn apart in November at the party congress meant to choose Sarkozy’s successor as the head of the party. Although both warring sides in the UMP’s civil war have since come to an agreement (a new congress in the fall, in the meantime the leadership is made up of an equal number of members from both sides), it is an uneasy truce between the two rival camps united only by their common opposition to the government. The few major UMP politicians who are very popular with the electorate at this point in time are those who are out of the limelight and the intrigues at the Parisian headquarters (Christine Lagarde as IMF managing director, Alain Juppé as mayor of Bordeaux and respected ‘party elder’). Finally, Nicolas Sarkozy’s potential ambitions for a rematch against Hollande in 2017 might be complicated by his recent indictment in an old corruption/party financing scandal.

Profile

Map of the Oise’s 2nd constituency (outlined in red)

Oise’s second constituency includes the west of the Oise department and the southwest canton of Beauvais, the main urban centre in the region. The constituency, whose borders have remained the same since 1986, is made up of the cantons of Auneuil, Beauvais Sud-Ouest, Chaumont-en-Vexin, Le Coudray-Saint-Germer, Fromerie, Grandvilliers, Noailles and Songeons. This constituency includes parts of four traditional natural regions: the Plateau Picard in the north; the Bray in the centre; the Thelle/Thérain valley running towards the south; and the Vexin français in the southwestern end of the constituency.

The common way of describing constituencies similar to this one is ‘rural’. Indeed, Beauvais is the only large city in the constituency where no other commune has over 3,000 inhabitants. However, the ‘rural’ descriptor is both deceptive and simplistic; the second constituency is much more of an exurban/small town constituency rather than a purely rural area. With the exception of the two northernmost cantons, most of the constituency is a patchwork of villages and small towns economically and socially tied to Beauvais and/or Paris. Beauvais is the only commune in the canton where over half of the economically active population are employed in the town where they live. Historically, this is also a working-class area with small industrial centres or small industries (glass-making, sugar beets, metallurgy, railway classification yards in cités cheminotes).

Politically, alongside the rest of the department and most of the region, the constituency has shifted heavily to the right and far-right over the course of the past decades. Socialist President François Hollande won 43.9% in the constituency in May 2012; about 4% worse than Lionel Jospin (PS) had done in the constituency in 1995 (remembering that Hollande did about 4% better nationally). For an even starker contrast, 31 years ago, François Mitterrand won the constituency with 51.5% in the 1981 election – nationally, Hollande and Mitterrand (1981) won by almost the exact same margin, in this constituency Hollande performed nearly 8 points worse than Mitterrand in 1981.

Nevertheless, this constituency has never really been markedly left-leaning. Less industrialized and urbanized than other parts of the department, the French Communist Party (PCF) was never as strong here than in other parts of the department, and there was some subsisting Radical strength in the more agricultural parts of the constituency (Bray) in the 1950s.

Nicolas Sarkozy won the constituency with 60.7% in 2007 and held it with 56.1% last May. In the second round, Sarkozy was victorious in every canton in the constituency with the exception of Beauvais Sud-Ouest, where Hollande won 53.4% thanks to his strength in Beauvais itself (the part of the city contained in the constituency includes a large zone urbaine sensible, a low-income urban neighborhood). Sarkozy thoroughly dominated the near totality of the ‘rural’ part of the constituency, with results above 58% in most cantons. The sole remnants of left-wing strength outside Beauvais subsist only in Sérifontaine (canton of Le Coudray-Saint-Germer, an old PCF stronghold with a large metal industry) and Feuquières, a glass-working town in the north of the constituency (canton of Grandvilliers), an extension of the ‘Glass valley’ region along the Bresle river. But whereas Lionel Jospin had won nearly 60% in both those towns in 1995, Hollande won only 53.6% in the former and 55.8% in the latter. Some isolated remnants of left-wing dominance from another era may still prop up, however, in towns such as Hermes, an old cité cheminote where Hollande won 48.7%. For the sake of comparison, Mitterrand had won majorities in six of the seat’s eight cantons in the 1981 runoff and over 54% in Beauvais SO (54.4%) and Coudray-Saint-Germer (54.4%).

Results of presidential, European and regional elections since 1988 (1981 presidential results are notional numbers)

Results of presidential, European and regional elections since 1988 in Oise-2 (1981 presidential results are notional numbers)

Marine Le Pen did extremely well in the constituency, placing first in the first round with 27.9% against 27.6% for Sarkozy and only 22.1% for Hollande. Compared to her father’s performance in 2002 and 1995, she posted some very impressive results in constituencies just like this one across eastern and northern France. The FN has always been rather strong in this constituency, but Marine Le Pen was stronger than her father had ever been in the constituency.

The seat is an interesting mix of two distinct FN electorates: the area around Beauvais and the south of the constituency, in the Thelle/Thérain valley and the Vexin, are exurban areas drawn to Paris or smaller regional centres (Beauvais, Creil etc). The FN’s electorate there is relatively blue-collar as well, but it is of a more ideologically right-wing and périurbain subi variety. Even though the local foreign population is low (3%), because many of the inhabitants in the region tend to commute to large cities and interact/confront large immigrant populations there, the FN’s rhetoric on immigration is a powerful influence. The FN’s original support in the region came largely from these kind of areas – for example, in the 1984 Euro elections, the FN did better in the exurban-type cantons (Auneuil, Chaumont-en-Vexin, Beauvais SO) than in the industrial-type cantons (Formerie, Grandvilliers, Coudray-Saint-Germer). This is also a type of FN electorate which embraced Nicolas Sarkozy by the first round in 2007: Sarkozy won 33.4% in the first round in 2007, against only 23-24% for the mainstream right in 2002 (Chirac, Madelin, Boutin). His gains – and Le Pen’s loses – were heavier in the southern part of the constituency, the most suburban/exurban part.

However, the two northernmost cantons (Formerie and Grandvilliers) are less suburban/exurban. Demographically, they are the most working-class parts of the seat and also the most economically deprived (highest unemployment, lowest incomes); but most of the old industries are dead, and most people work outside their town/village of residence. The FN vote is more recent, and the FN support tends to be a ‘pure’ protest vote which rejects the main parties and expresses discontent but also concerns and fears with the economic situation. These voters are described as ninistes in that they identify as ‘neither left nor right’, rather than very right-wing like their counterparts in other parts of the country. Marine Le Pen performed best in these two northern cantons, winning 32% and 34% respectively. In 2007, they also showed themselves to be more resistant to ‘electoral Sarkozysm’ – Le Pen’s loses were significantly lower in Formerie and Grandvilliers than in the other cantons.

Marine Le Pen also won 31% in the cantons of Coudray-Saint-Germer and Noailles – including 38% in Hermes. Her worst results were in Beauvais SO (20.7%) and the canton of Chaumont-en-Vexin (24%), which includes more affluent and well-educated Parisian outer suburbs.

The constituency has been held by the right since it took its current shape, with the exception of 1997 when the PS’ Béatrice Marre defeated the right thanks to a triangulaire with the FN. Logically, the UMP regained the seat in 2002 with 55% in the runoff and held it in 2007 with a reduced majority (52.8%). The UMP won the 2012 triangulaire by only 63 votes.

The UMP (RPR before that) incumbent since 1978 (with the exception of 1981-1986 and 1997-2002) is Jean-François Mancel, who is also the general councillor for the canton of Noailles and was president of the Oise general council between 1985 and 2004. Fitting in with his environment, Mancel is broadly on the right of the UMP (he is a copéiste); in fact, in 1998, he negotiated electoral alliances at the cantonal and regional level with the FN. Mancel is not a particularly strong incumbent and is not very influential within the ranks of his party, he has been weakened by a number of corruption allegations.

The main candidates were the same as in the June 2012 election: Mancel for the UMP, Beauvais SO general councillor Sylvie Houssin for the PS and Florence Italiani for the FN.

Results

The results of the first round (March 17)

Jean-François Mancel (UMP) 40.61% (+7.25%)
Florence Italiani (FN) 26.58% (+3.35%)
Sylvie Houssin (PS) 21.37% (-9.13%)
Pierre Ripart (FG) 6.64% (+1.39%)
Clément Lesaege (Pirate) 1.97%
Renée Potchtovik (LO) 1.57% (+0.84%)
Michel Ramel (DVD) 1.25%

Turnout 32.79% (blank and invalid votes: 2.76%)

The results of the runoff (March 23)

Jean-François Mancel (UMP) 51.41%
Florence Italiani (FN) 48.59%

Turnout 35.3% (blank and invalid votes: 10.09%)

The first round was a major defeat for the PS. Sylvie Houssin, the PS candidate, was eliminated from the runoff by the first round, having won only 21.4% of the vote – over 9% less than in June. The local PS candidate was badly hurt by the government’s unpopularity. As is usually the case, a large part of the left-wing/PS electorate which had voted for the PS in June 2012 did not turn out in this by-election. This had already been the case for the PS in the 3 by-elections in December (which had ended in three bad defeats for the PS, including the loss of one seat to the UMP); but it worked the other way around in 2010 or 2011, when the UMP lost a good number of its voters to abstention. The results at the communal level, turnout in the first round was clearly lower in left-wing precincts, and higher in those precincts where the FN or UMP performed better.

The two main winners of the first round were the UMP and the FN. Mancel nearly came back to his level in the “blue wave” first round of the 2007 legislative election (41.9% against 21.1% for the PS); although basically all candidates won less raw votes than in June, Mancel only lost about 5,500 votes while Houssin shed a full 9,300 votes.

The FN had a strong performance in the first round, in addition to qualifying for the runoff by finishing ahead of the PS. This is a bit different from what happened in the December by-elections, particularly the one in the Hérault where the FN had fancied its chances. In December, the FN had fallen flat on its face in the Hérault’s 6th constituency; their intakes in the two petite couronne seats where they were weak was also unimpressive. What is the difference between the two by-elections? The FN’s underwhelming result in the Hérault in December may, in part, have something to do with the local FN electorate: a clearly ideologically right-wing electorate, which has shown itself to be more susceptible to the UMP’s consistent attempts (since 2007) to woo them over. In the Hérault, many either did not turn out or supported the UMP candidate, who was the former UMP deputy (defeated by the PS in June) who himself was on the party’s right. In the Oise, however, the FN electorate is sociologically different and slightly more resistant to the UMP’s strategy. Furthermore, Mancel is not greatly appealing to many ‘soft’ FN voters.

The FG’s candidate won 6.6%, better than he had performed in June 2012 but not a remarkable gain. The FG has been attempting to profit from the government’s unpopularity on the left, and it has been a very vocal critic of Hollande and his government’s policies from the get-go. However, in both the December by-elections and this by-election, the FG’s performance – decent, but not anything to write home about – has likely been below their expectations. The PCF had similarly tried to benefit from the PS’ unpopularity at the end of Mitterrand’s second term, but its electoral performance in 1992 and 1993 showed that it had not really been able to turn the PS’ unpopularity into electoral success. Time will tell if the FG will profit from the government’s unpopularity – particularly with a sizable number of left-wing voters – in upcoming nationwide elections where turnout will be higher.

If the first round had been a major blow for the PS, the runoff was a major blow for the UMP. The boomerang came back and hit the UMP in its face. Mancel was reelected with a majority of only 768 votes against the FN candidate, with 51.4% of the vote. The FN came within a whisker of a major upset victory.

The FN’s strong performance begs one big question: where did its new voters, nearly 6000 additional votes, come from? There are, two main theories on this question: the ‘transfer’ theory and the ‘substitution’ theory. According to the ‘transfer’ theory, the FN gained votes from those who had voted for the PS (or FG) in the first round. This theory is not as crazy as it may seem. To begin with, past elections have shown that a good number of left-wing voters from the first round will vote for the FN against the mainstream rights in runoff elections where the left’s candidate was eliminated by the first round. In both right/FN and left/FN runoffs in the 2011 cantonal elections, the FN gained about 10 points from their first round result; in both right/FN and left/FN runoffs in June 2012, the FN gained about 16% from their first round result. Secondly, the left-wing base in the constituency (outside Beauvais) tends to be white working-class voters, who may realistically prefer the FN over the UMP.

There are also local circumstances at play which may explain PS/FN transfers. Although the national PS leadership de facto endorsed Mancel against the FN, the local PS candidate did not endorse any candidate. She stated that voters were faced with a choice between the extrême droite and droite extrême; two sides of the same coin. Left-wing voters had no reason to show up and ‘save’ Mancel against the FN: there were no national issues at stake, and Mancel is unpopular on the left because of his 1998 deals with the FN and various corruption clouds which have hung over his head for years.

While left>FN tranfers undeniably exist, the June 2012 legislative election showed that they were far less significant than right>FN transfers. In 9 right/FN runoffs in the last legislative election, there was only a weak correlation (0.21) between left-wing strength in the first round and FN gains between both rounds; there was, however, a 0.64 correlation between left-wing strength and a decline in voter turnout between between both rounds. Turnout declined by an average of 8% in the 9 right/FN battles in June, it only increased by 1.2% in left/FN battles. The percentage of voters who turned out in the runoff but cast blank or invalid votes was also very high (over 10%) in right/FN runoffs.

This by-election, however, is an outlier in this case. Turnout increased in the runoff, by about 2%. However, there was a major increase in blank and invalid votes, from 2.8% to 10% (about 2000 ‘new’ blank or invalid votes); the number of valid votes was actually slightly lower in the runoff than in the first round.

Results of the second round of the Oise-2 by-election by commune (own map)

Results of the second round of the Oise-2 by-election by commune (own map)

The ‘substitution’ theory would hold that while a larger number of left-wing voters did not turn out or cast invalid votes, that decline was compensated by the stronger mobilization of FN voters. Florence Italiani did indeed have a bigger reservoir to build on; Marine Le Pen won over 19,000 votes in the constituency in April 2012, Italiani only won 7.2k in the first round and 13,190 in the runoff. Her strong result in the first round might have allowed FN voters who had not turned out on March 17 to mobilize in her favour for the second round.

The national context during the week between both rounds might have further boosted the FN. It was, really, the dream scenario for the FN: a PS cabinet minister forced to resign in an alleged tax fraud scandal, followed by the former UMP President indicted by the courts for a campaign financing scandal; the current economic situation in Cyprus; and the Court of Cassation’s controversial decision to annul a lower court decision which had confirmed the lay-off, in 2008, of a daycare employee who had refused to remove her hijab.

The data from the 9 right/FN runoffs in June 2012 would tend to confirm that the ‘substitution’ theory is a better explanation than the ‘transfer’ electorate, although both are relatively valid. The results from this by-election, however, troubles the substitution theory a bit. That being said, we are dealing with a case unlike the 9 constituencies from June. This was a by-election, with structurally low turnout which will always tend to messy things up a bit. The low turnout levels in both rounds makes it harder for us to draw clear conclusions from the results, and makes it tough to prove either theory.

Joël Gombin did an ecological inference analysis on the runoff at the precinct level for the runoff. He found that 43% of Houssin’s voters from March 17 voted for the FN in the runoff, while remaining 57% split fairly equally (19%, 18%, 20%) between abstention, blank/invalid votes and the UMP. The 43% seems like a reasonable estimate, although it should still be taken with a grain of salt given the difficulties of analysis in low-turnout by-elections.

Indeed, at the communal level, the FN won most of the traditionally left-leaning towns in the constituency (Sérifontaine, Feuquières, Hermes, Formerie; but not Beauvais) and often by quite strong margins. And even in those towns, while turnout remained very low in both rounds, it did not decline by much (if at all) between both rounds. In some low-income precincts in Beauvais, where the left had been strongest in the first round, the FN generally did quite well in the second round despite being well below average in the first round. Yet, we should still be careful about assuming that all FN ‘extra’ votes came from the left. Nothing can prove that the same 30% turned out in both rounds, though it does appear quite unlikely that the runoff electorate would be an entirely different bunch of people than first round voters.

Gombin’s data revealed a few oddities. There is the matter that Italiani would have kept ‘only’ 62% of her first round voters and lost a quarter of them to Mancel. While it is clear that there a number of FN voters who vote for the FN in the first round as a protest vote or to send a message but who will vote for the right or left in the runoff; it is tough to see why a quarter (!) of first round FN voters would prefer to vote UMP in the runoff against the FN. Granted, some right-wingers might have been tempted to send a message by voting FN in the first round but ‘played it safe’ in the runoff, but can they account for some 25% of Italiani’s 7.2 thousand voters from the first round?

His results also indicated that about 19% of Mancel’s first round voters went to the FN in the runoff; he kept 74% of his first round intake. There has been no research, as far as I know, on the behaviour of first round mainstream right voters in right/FN runoff situations, but it can be a bit puzzling as well. One explanation which Gombin tentatively suggested was Nicolas Sarkozy’s indictment in the Bettencourt affair in the week between the first and second round, and the negative effect it might have had on some UMP supporters.

Oise2leg

Legislative elections in the Oise-2 since 1993, including the 2013 by-election

The ‘substitution’ theory has been taken up by the local PS in Beauvais, which obviously has political interest in writing off the FN’s strong performance as a result of the mobilization of the electorate rather than the result of left>FN transfers, which would discredit its ‘two sides of the same coin’ strategy. Again, however, it is foolish and overly partisan to write off any kind of left>FN transfers. Both theories are valid, although in this particular case it would seem that evidence leans towards the ‘transfer’ theory

What lessons can be taken out of this by-election? Firstly, it shows that, on the ground, the traditional ‘republican front’ strategy is basically dead and whatever kind of cordon sanitaire which might have existed on the ground in the past between the FN and the other parties is long gone. We should stop treating voters as mathematical, rational and predictable individuals who can be expected to follow the directions given by their party of choice. Despite the strong enmity between national PS and FN leadership, there is some overlap between both parties. Some left-wing voters will prefer the FN over the right when faced with that choice.

While this by-election risks re-opening the old myth that there is a massive reservoir of voters who hesitate between the PS/FG and the FN, it is nevertheless clear that a certain part of the left-wing electorate flirts the FN and is open to voting for the FN in particular circumstances. In this sense, the PS should stop treating the FN issue as something which only concerns the right, because the FN is a potential danger to the left as well (though perhaps not as much of a problem as it is for the right).

The current political situation in France is ideal for the FN. The left-wing government is unpopular, including with a good part of its historical and/or current electoral clientele; but the main right-wing opposition is struggling to keep the lid on a simmering internal civil war and it has generally failed to present itself as the sole credible alternative to the left for the moment. With a morose economic and social situation, and a political climate in which both traditional parties are unpopular; the FN has almost everything going for it as things stand. Furthermore, as this by-election further confirmed, the FN is becoming less and less ‘toxic’ and repulsive to voters and its electoral potential in the runoff – while still far, far away from the 50%+1 it will need to win power – is clearly far wider under Marine Le Pen’s leadership.

Nevertheless, we should be careful about reading too much into low-turnout by-elections and we would do well to steer away from the inevitable mass panic and pandemonium which ensues whenever the FN does well somewhere.

The by-election in Wallis-et-Futuna received next to no attention from the national media, largely because politics on those remote islands of the French Pacific are disconnected from metropolitan politics and are heavily based on local factors. Even if the national parties exist on the islands, these partisan labels are meaningless. Insular politics revolve around local personalities – especially the endorsements of various traditional rulers – and campaigns have no ideological overtones. Voters often vote for the candidate based on family ties or the endorsement of their local ruler. National political trends don’t impact local politics at all. The seat was held by Benjamin Brial, a local Gaullist baron, between 1967 and 1988; and later by his son, Victor Brial, between 1997 and 2007. Albert Likuvalu, affiliated with the Left Radicals (PRG) at the national level, defeated Brial in 2007 but went down to defeat in 2012 – he placed third with barely 17% in June. David Vergé, the victor of the June 2012 election, was aligned with the vaguely centre-right opposition in the local legislature, but he joined the PS group in the National Assembly in July.

The candidate endorsed by the UMP, Napole Polutele, faced two centre-left candidates: Mikaele Kulimoetoke (the runner-up in June 2012) and Lauriane Tialetagi Vergé (PS, the wife of David Vergé, the deputy elected in June 2012 and ineligible for elected office for one year). In the first round, he won 37.4% against 33.1% for Kulimoetoke and 29.5% for Tialetagi Vergé. In the runoff, which featured the same candidates, Polutele won with 37.5% against 32.4% for Kulimoetoke and 30.2% for Tialetagi Vergé. Turnout was 75.7% in the first round and 79.7% in the runoff.

There are, as aforementioned, two pending legislative by-elections will be called in the 1st (North America) and 8th (Israel, Greece, Turkey, Italy) constituencies for French citizens abroad. Both seats were held by PS deputies whose elections were invalidated; both were also declared ineligible for elected office for a period of one year due to irregularities in their campaign’s financing. The PS is extremely vulnerable in both constituencies, both of which favoured Sarkozy over Hollande on May 6 – in fact, Sarkozy won 63% in the eight constituency! Nevertheless, both are unpredictable because turnout will be extremely low (in June 2012, turnout was 20% in the first and 13% in the eight!) and the local right, as in June, is badly divided in both constituencies.

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Posted on March 27, 2013, in By-elections, France. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Minor despatches: I doubt Gael will cover this, so here is something readers may be interested in.

    A legislative by-election was held in the Meath East constituency of Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house, yesterday. The election was caused by the death of Shane McEntee, a Fine Gael TD (member of the Dáil) and the Junior Minister for Food.

    Meath East is located to the north-west of Dublin. The south of the constituency is dominated by Dublin commuter towns, such as Ashbourne, Ratoath and Dunboyne. This is the heartland of an archetypical symbol of the Irish economic collapse called the “negative equity generation”: first-time house-buyers who purchased homes with large mortgage in the mid-2000s, and who now owe far more than their houses are worth. Many (probably most) are not originally from the county in which they now live, an important cultural marker in small and localistic Ireland. Meath East is more rural and settled in the northern part of the county, while the north-west end includes Kells, the largest town in northern Meath. The constituency’s somewhat bizarre, salamander-like shape is due to the exclusion of Meath’s largest town, Navan, and the inclusion of Kells, on population ratio equalisation grounds. Ironically, Meath was the home of James Tully, the Labour TD who oversaw a gerrymander that backfired in the 1970s (the Tullymander). To compound his misfortune, he then suffered shrapnel damage at the assassination of Egyptian President Assad after Labour’s return to power in the 1980s.

    The coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour has fallen sharply in popularity since their election in 2011, while the opposition parties of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have risen, as have independents and other candidates. This was probably predictable, since the government has continued most of the last (Fianna Fáil-Green) government’s policies, especially on economic issues, due to its support of the EU-ECB-IMF “troika” programme of financial support for the Irish State. This by-election was therefore considered a contest between the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties. Meath East is mainly “exurban”, especially in the southern end of the constituency, but also small town and rural. This means the Labour Party was not considered a contender; their support is mainly in cities and important towns with local industry, and their current popularity is low in any case. It was enough to win one out of three seats in Meath East in 2011 under the STV proportional representation system, but it wouldn’t be enough to win an instant run-off by-election, even if they had held up their popularity. As for Sinn Féin, they did well at the by-election in Donegal South-West in 2010, which is also a rural area. But despite the despair of the negative equity generation, Meath is still a relatively prosperous part of Ireland, with big farms and many professionals who commute to jobs in Dublin. It’s a much higher-income area than Donegal, and that’s bad for Sinn Féin. Fine Gael outpolled Fianna Fáil hard in Meath East at the 2011 general election, and the big question was whether Fianna Fáil’s image-improvement since then would close enough of the gap to let them win.

    Fine Gael fielded Helen McEntee, daughter of Shane McEntee, who worked on his political and ministerial teams. Family candidates are popular in Irish elections, especially by-elections, and form the “dynasties” that have provided many Taoisigh (heads of government), including the current Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his predecessor Brian Cowen, who both won by-elections to succeed their fathers. She primarily campaigned for a “sympathy vote” rather than seeking a mandate for a pretty unpopular government (). Labour chose Eoin Holmes, a county councillor and film producer who talked a lot about entrepreneurship. Fianna Fáil chose Thomas Byrne, the former TD who lost his seat at the 2011 epic fail but got a Senate seat as a consolation prize. Sinn Féin’s candidate was Darren O’Rourke, who works as an assistant to Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, the party’s former parliamentary party leader in the Dáil (back when Gerry Adams was an MP in Northern Ireland). The Greens chose their former candidate, but they are now considered a minor party compared to the big four, with no Oireachtas representation. Independents and others included a Workers’ Party candidate and Ben Gilroy, a Direct Democracy Ireland activist who is popular among the crazy “Freeman on the Land” movement.

    Helen McEntee (FG) 38.49% (-2.38%)
    Thomas Byrne (FF) 32.92% (+13.31%)
    Darren O’Rourke (SF) 13.02% (+4.14%)
    Ben Gilroy (DDI) 6.45% (+6.45%)
    Eoin Holmes (Lab) 4.57% (-16.46%)
    Seán Ó Buachalla (GP) 1.74% (+0.66%)
    Seamus McDonagh (WP) 1.08% (+1.08%)
    Independent candidates 1.73% (-6.80%)

    The huge story from this by-election has been the collapse of Labour’s vote, which was far bigger than national opinion polls would have suggested. Polls suggest that Labour has lost 6 to 10 points nationally compared to 2011. However, other stories are worth noting. Fine Gael’s vote held up much better than its partner, and much better than national polls would suggest. McEntee held onto her strong support base in the north of the constituency, as well as probably getting a sympathy vote (common for family members in Irish by-elections, though Fine Gael will deny this and claim that her success is a mandate for the party nationally). Interestingly, after 29 years when governments never won by-elections, this is the second government victory out of two by-elections in this Dáil. Labour won the first of these in late 2011, though their successful candidate left the parliamentary party about five weeks later. The last time Fine Gael won a by-election while in government was in 1975, when their candidate was a young Enda Kenny.

    Fianna Fáil has recovered strongly, though they still can’t outpoll government candidates in actual elections. It seems that Fianna Fáil, not Sinn Féin, is enjoying the surge of anti-government feeling in relatively prosperous areas like Meath East (and the Dublin commuter belt more generally), though nobody would deny that Sinn Féin is the main beneficiary in deprived urban and rural areas. Among other opposition groups, Direct Democracy Ireland’s performance is striking. Small parties and independents rarely do very well at Irish by-elections. Gilroy ran a campaign strongly focussed on opposing repossessions of houses by banks, in tune with his support among the fringe, legal conspiracy theorists of the “Freeman on the Land” movement. This is at a time when the Irish government is openly discussing policies to make repossessions easier, due to the abnormally low rate compared to other countries with property price ex-bubbles like the USA, the UK or Spain. Gilroy caught a zeitgeist for what is basically a one-man party (though the Irish party registration requirements are reasonably strict, so he must have lots of supporters).

  2. Hi EPG, Interesting stuff in your comment-update. Could you say a bit more about this “Freeman on the Land” movement?

  3. Update: I now have details of the second and third counts, after which McEntee was elected. The second count excluded all but the top five candidates and Gilroy (DDI) won more of their transfers than any of the remaining five. This is less surprising than it may seem for a fourth-place candidate, as many independents tend to be fringe candidates themselves. They would be close to Gilroy’s anti-system and anti-party profile, which is even more anti-system than Sinn Féin. Independents in Ireland often seem to fill the “anti” role played by right-wing populists in other European countries, but with a local twist, and they have a similar support base of broadly non-left people with middling incomes. Fianna Fáil won fewest transfers, even fewer than Labour, which may suggest that the public is polarised by its recent rebirth. The third count was a run-off between McEntee (FG) and Byrne (FF). McEntee won 54.5% of the two-party vote after getting far more transfers than Byrne. A lot of SF or DDI voters must have given a higher preference to McEntee than to Byrne, their fellow opposition candidate, as McEntee’s third-count transfers (1,900) were much larger than Labour’s final vote total on the second round (1,200). Even if we assume that any remaining Labour supporters are firmly pro-coalition and sympathetic to Fine Gael, that still leaves about 800-900 of McEntee’s transfers that must have come from SF or DDI, after accounting for the usual transfer attrition. But she didn’t even need to do that well with opposition voters on these counts; she was safely ahead of Byrne from the outset. McEntee is now the youngest woman in the current Dáil. The broader, national consequences are still unclear, though they can’t be good for Labour. Each of the opposition parties would have hoped to do better. Fianna Fáil wanted to win and Sinn Féin wanted to win votes in line with national polling (i.e. about 8% higher than in 2011). Fine Gael is glad to win and to have lost few votes, but the party was shaken by the sad death of Shane McEntee and would have preferred if this by-election had never happened.

    Correction: The Egyptian President in the 1980s was Sadat, of course, not Assad.

    nimh: Wikipedia has a good summary: “Freemen on the land are people who claim that all statute law is contractual, and that such law is applicable only if an individual consents to be governed by it.” RationalWiki has a more subjective and more accurate summary. They believe that statute law is not binding on non-consenting citizens, including commercial law and debt collection.

  4. Thanks for that, Edward! Would you mind if I put it up as a quick guest post?

  5. No problem, Gael!

  1. Pingback: Lot-et-Garonne 3rd (France) by-election: Losing streak | World Elections

  2. Pingback: Régions.news #81 – Edition du vendredi 29 mars 2013 | RÉGIONS.NEWS

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