|As the socialist executive continues to struggle with economic problems and disastrous polls, the UMP looks set to win the forthcoming municipal elections in March. Earlier hopes of a massive ‘blue wave’ having waned, the opposition party has recently settled for the lesser ambition of recapturing enough municipal councils to overturn the 2008 election result in which the Left won 55 per cent of France’s larger towns. To seal its victory, the right would also need to conquer one of the country’s largest cities currently held by the socialists. Paris would clearly represent the biggest prize of all, and would create political momentum for the UMP in its struggle back to government.|
The Paris municipal election consists of separate elections in each of the 20 arrondissements where voters elect their local district councillors as well as the 163 members of the city council (see map below). The latter then elect the capital’s mayor. The electoral formula (PLM) gives a strong seat bonus to the list topping the ballot in each district. The ten most populated arrondissements ( 11 through 20) provide over three-quarters (77 per cent) of the 163 city council seats, and are therefore worth much more than others in the municipal race.
Number of Paris councillors (Conseillers de Paris) by arrondissement
In many cases, the current balance of power remains favourable to the left. Since 2008, the socialists and their partners have been in charge in 12 of the 20 arrondissements, including seven of the most densely populated districts in the Eastern part of the city (11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19 and 20).
Arrondissements won by the left and the right in 2008 (% valid vote)
A total of four arrondissements were won in the first round: three by the left (3rd, 11th and 19th), one by the right (16th).
In practice, this means that, in order to take Paris, the UMP and its allies would need to win two highly populated ‘swing’ districts, while simultaneously avoiding any loss across the eight arrondissements they currently control.
Overall, the current political climate should give the UMP mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (NKM) some cause for hope. The left in Paris could reasonably be expected to bear the electoral cost of the current tide of discontent with the socialists. A poll conducted in early January showed clear differential turnout: the right could be more successful in getting out its voters (59 per cent) than the left (50 per cent).
Main frontrunners in the Paris municipals
Top from left: Anne Hidalgo (PS), Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (UMP) and Wallerand de Saint-Just (FN); bottom from left: Christophe Najdovski (EELV), Danielle Simonnet (PG) and Charles Beigbeder
Last November, the socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo was already distancing herself from Ayrault’s government to try to avoid ending up as collateral damage, and has been highly critical of the government’s recent U-turn on its progressive family law so dear to liberal left Parisian voters.
Moreover, the municipal agenda is increasingly shifting towards issues of law and order and local taxes. In her position as first deputy mayor since 2001, Hidalgo could be held responsible for the rise in council taxes in Paris under two consecutive Delanoë legislatures. This should be favourable to the right and the fact that NKM has recently beefed up her profile as the ‘tough on crime’ and ‘low tax’ candidate suggests that she might be successfully setting the municipal agenda to her own benefit.
The protégée of the socialist incumbent Bertrand Delanoë is therefore counting on enjoying a vicarious ‘prime au sortant’. Studies of French municipal elections since 1945 have shown a well established pattern for incumbent mayors to outperform their party, particularly when they seek re-election for the first time. As can be seen from the figure below, Hidalgo also does outperform her UMP rival on a number of personality traits, policy and competence, most particularly in terms of her credibility as mayor, her campaigning skills and her personal proximity with the Parisians. And she appears to be more friendly too.
Source: CSA-Poll 2014 Le match des municipales à Paris: L’état d’esprit des Parisiens et leurs intentions de vote, BFMTV, Le Figaro and Orange, Internet Poll, 3-7 January 2014, N=810
Cohesion also counts. The Parisian right is once again divided going into the municipals. Continued competition between the rival factions that emerged during the Copé vs. Fillon leadership war in November 2012 is hampering NKM’s efforts to unite the right in Paris, despite an electoral pact with the UDI and MODEM centrists. During the primary election in June of last year – which she won with 58 per cent of the vote – NKM attracted strong criticism from right-wingers in the UMP for being too culturally liberal. The old Gaullist ‘barons’ are still balking at throwing their support behind the ambitious young UMP candidate. A dissident UMP list has already been announced by Dominique Tibéri in the 5th arrondissement and former UMP member and businessman Charles Beigbeder is looking to challenge NKM on her right flank with a strong liberal pro-business agenda. Last but not least, Nicolas Sarkozy himself seems reluctant to endorse his former campaign spokeswoman. Following Jacques Chirac’s example, a successful municipal bid could give NKM a formidable political springboard into the 2017 presidential election, turning her into a dangerous rival for the former president.
On the left, conversely, Hidalgo can count on the support of all the traditional socialist partners. In June 2013, former EELV leader Cécile Duflot pulled out of any mayoral challenge, lifting a significant weight off the socialist’s shoulders. The Greens will still run independently across all 20 arrondissements, but whilst they have recently initiated talks with the Front de Gauche’s candidate Danielle Simonnet to present common lists, they should eventually join forces with the PS to protect the left-wing majority. Even the Communists will run together with the socialists, a decision approved by 57 per cent of the Paris party members last October.
NKM’s task of winning back the capital might be complicated further by a surge in support for the FN, reminiscent of the party’s successes in Paris during the 1980s. The campaign by the FN candidate Wallerand de Saint-Just mirrors the 1984 European elections where the far right mobilized the radicalized segment of the bourgeois electorate in the Western districts and won 15.2 per cent of the vote. Since then, electoral support for the FN has declined in Paris, as in other big French cities, reflecting the new peri-urban geography and proletarianization of the party. In the 2001 and 2008 municipals, the FN received less than 3 per cent of the Parisian vote on average. Nevertheless, recent polls show the FN at 9 per cent, in third place behind the socialists and the UMP. This could increase the risk of three-way contests that could harm the UMP, particularly in the bourgeois arrondissements of the west where the FN could win more than 10 per cent. In the end, the overall impact of the FN should be limited, but the political revival of the radical right in Paris certainly complicates NKM’s task of mobilizing both the right and centre sections of the UMP.
The latest projections based on city-wide polls seem to offer some evidence of a consolidation of the left, even if we should be very cautious of polls that hide the heterogeneity of elections held by arrondissement. A CSA poll conducted in early January showed that the election could be a tight race, with the left possibly winning a narrow majority of 51.5 per cent in the run-off. A more recent IFOP poll suggests on the other hand that Hidalgo and the socialists could sweep the election with 54 per cent of the second round vote, up from 52.5 per cent in a comparable survey conducted earlier last month. In 2008, the first-round total of the left had amounted to 53.9 per cent of the entire city vote, as opposed to 42.4 per cent for the mainstream right.
In the end, however, the race will be won or lost for the right on their capacity to claim the two ‘swing’ arrondissements, and hold their current batch. With 10 councillors each and a relatively balanced left-right ratio, the 14th and 12th arrondissements will be the main battlegrounds in 2014. NKM is leading her troops into battle in the 14th. In the 12th, this task has been entrusted to a well-entrenched UMP city councillor, Valérie Montandon. Meanwhile, the left may mount a successful rearguard action in the 5th arrondissement - a recent poll has shown that the socialists could well win this historical Gaullist stronghold, which would certainly influence the final outcome and tip the balance to the left.
What are the chances for the UMP to capture those critical arrondissements? As the map above shows, the spatial distribution of the vote in Paris in 2008 shows a great deal of polarization. Many arrondissements display strong preferences for a particular camp, showing the persistence albeit in an attenuated version of the traditional divide between the bourgeois West and the more working class East identified by French political scientist François Goguel in the early 1950s. The left has its strongholds in the Eastern area and the rive droite of the Seine, while the right firmly dominates the Western districts and the rive gauche.
Changes in local politics since the mid-1990s also reflect the socio-demographic transformation of the capital city. For the first time ever, Paris gave a majority to the left in the second round of the 2012 presidential election, with 55.6 per cent of the vote in favour of Hollande. This contrasts of course with the previous electoral history of Paris which had been a bastion of the right since the early years of the Third Republic. The socio-demographic make up of the Parisian electorate shows a process of urban gentrification through a movement from the Western bourgeois districts into the neighbouring arrondissements, first, then into the more working class areas in the Eastern part of the city. Arrondissements nos. 2, 3, 10, 11, 12 and 14 in particular have become home to a new class of young cosmopolitan urban professionals and upper middle class voters who adhere to the culturally progressive and green agenda of the left.
A success by Hidalgo’s socialists will rest upon their ability to reassemble their constituency of ‘bobos’, lower-salariat voters and what blue collar workers there are left. For her part, NKM will be targeting the traditional bourgeois electorate in the Western arrondissements while simultaneously trying to build a more solid support base among middle class voters. Her more moderate, modern and environmentally friendly profile might help her set foot in the ‘bobo’ heartland in March; whether that will suffice to reclaim the city from the left remains to be seen.