The second round of the French cantonal elections were held on Sunday and merely reinforced the picture that emerged from the first round: the ruling UMP (Union for a Popular Majority) of President Nicolas Sarkozy is in serious trouble. True the party also took a drubbing in cantonal elections before the previous 2007 presidential elections. But then a savior appeared on the scene named Nicholas Sarkozy, who led the party to victory. However, what emerged from the elections is that Sarkozy's magic has all but evaporated and what worked in 2007 is not going to work in 2012.
The UMP's major problem is the rejuvenated National Front, led by Marine Le Pen. Although it's fielded very few candidates in the 2nd round, the Front came in with 11%. Where it did run candidates, it captured as much as 40%.
The French president had hoped to repeat his successful strategy I'm stealing votes away from the National Front, by appealing to some of the National Front party's themes and conducting a debate within his party on the French secular state. This was a pointed allusion to the necessity of preserving a secular state against France's growing Muslim population.
Sunday's elections demonstrated that this strategy may have backfired. It seems as if voters feel if that the ruling party has legitimized the arguments of the Front, they will opt for the original rather than the copy.
If in 2007 most voters viewed the National Front as beyond the pale, a majority, according to the exit polls, now view it as a normal political party and members of the Front see themselves in the same light. This will legitimize a vote for the National Front and this is bad news for the UMP. While increasingly viewed as a legitimate choice, the Front is still viewed as a vehicle for registering a protest vote. Since many Frenchmen are fed up with the state of the economy, the National Front is a beneficiary of such protest. Compared with the last cantonal elections, the Front gained 8%, almost all of it at the UMP's expense.
This has already touched off reverberations within the party.
The mayor of Epinal, Michel Heinrich, has advised the UMP to scrap the debate on Islam, which had been transformed into a debate on secularism because "I'm tired of this race behind the National Front". The strategy may have worked in 2007, but currently "no one is fooled."
Dominque de Villepin, a longtime rival of Sarkozy within the UMP, claimed that the party has to avoid identity topics such as immigration or security because this is merely a feeble attempt to poach on National Front territory. Another party bigwig said the only topic of an intraparty debate should be "how are we going to stop losing now?"
Having announced the debate with such fanfare, it is hard to see Sarkozy abruptly dropping the idea. The best he can do is to consign it to a lingering, quiet death.
Alain Juppé, the Foreign Minister, urged the party to keep a cool head and stay together rather than splinter.
The Front's surge creates a dilemna for French Jews.
There are those who will never trust the Front because of the anti-Semitism of its founder Jean Marie de la Pen who minimized the Holocaust as a mere detail of the Second World War.
Some French Jews believe that if the Front evinces hostility towards French Muslim immigrants, the xenophobic sentiment will soon be taken up against the Jews. On the other hand, some members of the Jewish community feel that French governments of the right and the left have not reacted against Muslim anti-Semitism forcefully and that French Jewry has been unprotected.
Marine Le Pen has made overtures to French Jewry and has dissassociated herself from her father's anti-Semitism. She appears to be emulating other populist parties in Europe. Her position on Israel, while not as friendly as the Swedish Democrats or Geert Wilder's Dutch Freedom Party, is certainly no worse than the French establishment parties.