Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rout of the right

The left is making unexpected inroads into Western Europe as the results of Sunday's French regional elections clearly show, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption
An exhilarated François Hollande

French President Jacques Chirac is safely ensconced in office until 2007. However, his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is in very bad shape after being routed in regional elections.

The Socialists, Greens and Communists won 50 per cent of the vote while the ruling UMP barely got away with Alscace. Even Jean-Pierre Raffarin's own power- base of Poitou-Charentes, which he ruled for 14 years before becoming prime minister, was won by the Socialists. The UMP captured less than 37 per cent in the second round of voting. The far right National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen fared even worse, trailing in third place.

Across Europe, the right is facing a serious crisis of confidence. It has lost credibility and is regarded with mistrust by people tired of the endless rhetoric of the United States-led international war against terrorism. European voters obviously want their politicians to focus more closely on domestic concerns. In the post-Cold War era it had become commonplace to think of European politics in terms of a rising right and retreating left. Now it seems the tables have turned.

The left, which until very recently had little to celebrate, has a golden opportunity to sweep the board. Socialists won a landslide victory in Spain in the aftermath of the 11 March Madrid bombings. While not particularly enthused with the previous performance of the Socialists, French voters today appear willing to give them, and their Green and Communist allies, another chance. By default, perhaps, leftist parties are replacing their rightist rivals, perhaps soon in Italy as well.

In France, the disenchantment the right faces stems mostly from the perceived failure of market-oriented policy initiatives in the areas of retirement, health and employment. Unemployment in France is currently running at 10 per cent, regarded by many as untenable. "The [elections] message reflects the impatience, even the exasperation, of some French at [UMP tabled] reforms," said French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

French newspapers were quick to reflect the mood. "Wipe-out for the right, triumph for the left," trumpeted a headline in Le Figaro. In all but two of France's 22 regions the right seems crushed. "The disaster of 28 March marks the beginning of the end of Chirac's reign," opined the left- wing daily Liberation, the day after the elections. "Bye bye Raffarin" it gloated.

Indeed, after Sunday's election rout Prime Minister Raffarin resigned but was immediately re-appointed by Chirac. The re-appointment was widely considered a slap in the face for the electorate. "Jacques Chirac has just given the French people the two fingers," Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialists in parliament, said.

"By confirming Raffarin [as prime minister]," French Socialist leader François Hollande told Liberation, Chirac chose to ignore "the message of the people. He also is at fault for wanting to prolong a policy which was rejected in a massive way." The regional election results were, nonetheless, "unforeseeable", Hollande confessed.

Le Temps put the government's disastrous results down to the fact that it "barely listened to the warnings and suggestions of its interlocutors". The voters were not fooled by the Raffarin government's double speak. They spoke of "dialogue and negotiation", and in the same breath refused to heed people's demands.

Western European commentators overwhelmingly agreed with their French counterparts. The failure of the French right was due "not so much to any particular political programme, but to rampant dissatisfaction with the government", declared Germany's daily Berliner Zeitung.

It couldn't have helped that the French right has been knocked by a spate of ugly scandals. In January 2004 Alain Juppe, leader of Chirac's UMP and former French premier, was convicted of involvement in corrupt party funding arrangements.

Meanwhile, in desperation to hold on to their few remaining sympathisers, the UMP is deploying charismatic politicians like rising star Nicholas Sarkozy, the newly appointed finance minister. Additional cabinet changes included the replacement of the vehemently anti-American former Foreign Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin by the pro-American Michel Barnier. De Villepin becomes interior minister. Socialists and their allies rejected the cabinet changes as "cosmetic".

It is questionable if the voters will fall for Sarkozy-type politicians. In any case, Sarkozy has his eyes on Chirac's rather than Raffarin's job. Raffarin pledged to focus attention on national issues. In his first address to parliament on Monday Raffarin admitted, "there have been mistakes, there have been delays." They "will be corrected", he added.

As far as Italian and perhaps even American officials are concerned, they better had be. The trend for the right, otherwise, is not looking good.

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