The historic defeat suffered by François Hollande in the polls last weekend sucker-punched the president into naming his main political rival for the Élysée as his new prime minister.
Manuel Valls, the interior minister whose blunt manner and tough immigration policies earned him the nickname of “Sarkozy’s clone”, will succeed the wishy-washy Jean-Marc Ayrault as Hollande makes a desperate final bid to avoid becoming the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic.
Like practically every political change in the past two years of his presidency, the announcement was messily handled. It was initially supposed to be made by Hollande in a formal television address at 8pm last night. But the wind was taken out of his sails when his outgoing PM leaked the news of his departure two hours earlier. Then, in a break with age-old tradition, rather than delivering his formal letter of resignation to the Élysée in person, as every PM has in the past, Jean-Marc Ayrault sent it by courier. It was hard not to deduce that he felt ill-used by the man whom he had served faithfully for two years.
Few mid-term elections are ever favourable to the party in power, but the slap given to Hollande in Sunday’s local elections resonated particularly loudly. The Socialists and their Green allies lost more than 150 French towns and cities to the Right-wing opposition. Fifteen went over to Marine Le Pen’s Front National, a record that left the Parisian commentariat – and, reportedly, the president himself – stunned. Hollande had told visitors only last week that he believed the losses would be “contained” and expected the Left to lose no more than 50 towns and cities.
Yet the president’s abysmal popularity ratings, hovering between 16 per cent and 20 per cent, should have given him an inkling. The French stopped trusting the government some time ago, but nor do they have much respect for the bickering factions of what the chattering classes call “the Republican Right” (the post-Gaullist, half-Sarkozyst UMP) or the smattering of other small conservative outfits – in short, anyone who isn’t the Front National.
Marine Le Pen was the elephant in the room; the unmentionable partner. To consider voting for her was to exclude yourself from polite discourse. Bertolt Brecht, the Marxist playwright, summed it up best 60-odd years ago: “The people have lost the government’s confidence. Wouldn’t it be simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”
The writing was on the wall, but nobody cared to read it. Seen from the disfranchised wastelands of semi-rural France, from the Lorraine industrial basins (where the last Indian tycoon has abandoned the steelworks), or from Provence, where the Parisian haute bourgeoisie summer in elegant cypress-shaded stone villas while the local youth can’t find jobs, most of France’s politicians all look and sound the same. Drawn from a narrow social class, educated in the same elite government or scientific schools, civil servants by profession, they believe in technocratic, top-down solutions, because, every inflection seems to imply, They Know Best. They were not very popular even before the economic crisis. They are now loathed.
France is, of course, not alone in seeing a grassroots revolt from ordinary people who feel that the powers that be, in their respective capitals or in Brussels, at best nanny them, and at worst despise them. From Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid to Nigel Farage’s Ukip, they have made similar inroads in the political discourse.
But the French elites were particularly ill-equipped to understand this new reality. Allying intellectual pretensions with a hard-wired conformism – there’s a reason why there’s no French expression for “tall-poppy syndrome” or “accountability”, for that matter — they found it incomprehensible that the working class would cease to vote for the Left.
Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, was busy shopping for new young faces to the Left of the Socialist party. And with them she drew up a statist, protectionist platform that believes in nationalising key industries, withholding benefits from immigrants while making them more generous for laid-off workers, and supports Bashar al-Assad “against the Jihadists”. It all sounded Left-wing enough to attract an entire swathe of different voters.
Appointing Sarkozy’s clone was arguably the hardest decision Hollande, a notable ditherer, in both his private and public life, has ever had to take. After an entire career built on constructing complicated compromises between party factions, the great manoeuverer has, for the first time in his life, taken a clear political stance and committed himself to open confrontation with the militant wing he has tried to keep happy for years. And with Marine in full combat mode on the other side, it might be too little too late.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.