It was a sweet Sunday night for French President François Hollande, whose Socialist Party scored an emphatic victory in legislative elections. As Hollande travels to Mexico on Monday to attend the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, French media is calling his party's victory a "grand slam.” And right-wingers complain the new president now has "all the powers.” But there were sour tinges to mar any celebration. Hollande's ex-partner Ségolène Royal suffered a crushing defeat after first lady Valérie Trierweiler made headlines tweeting against her. Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front won its noisy way into Parliament. And the hard part, of course, starts now.
Hollande was once a long shot for president and his chaotic party was being eulogized by pundits only three years ago. But Mr. Low Expectations has done it again. On Sunday night, his Socialists scored an absolute majority in the lower house of France's Parliament, a heady score that should allow Hollande to drive through his social-democrat program without kowtowing to far leftists or Greens for their fair-weather support. And as a new leader with an emphatically elected party, Sunday's vote should provide Hollande with a more authoritative voice in key international negotiations, in Europe and beyond. (By comparison, German Chancellor Angela Merkel governs in coalition and is facing elections next year, although Berlin speaks with the authority of having pushed through reforms where France has lagged, while enjoying a healthier economy.)
Indeed, after winning the Senate for the first time last fall, France's left wing now dominates at every level of government, also holding most regions and the mayor's office in most major cities. And if busybody former president Nicolas Sarkozy looked like he was permanently campaigning, it is partly because he actually was, with some intermediary election or other falling every year he held office. Hollande's Socialists, meanwhile, don't face the ballot box again until nationwide municipal elections in 2014, giving him some time to act “normal,” per his famous campaign pledge.
But in a race where the outlines, if not the magnitude, of the left-wing victory held little suspense—election fiends looking for earth-shaking drama on Sunday night were better served by Egypt and Greece—a few personalities, heroes and goats, made the loudest headlines.
The dénouement to last week's "psychodrama in La Rochelle" saw Socialist Party luminary Royal, the defeated 2007 presidential candidate and mother of Hollande’s four children, soundly beaten by a dissident socialist rival. The race on France’s Atlantic coast made global headlines last week when first lady Valérie Trierweiler, the political reporter for whom Hollande left Royal after more than 25 years, ostentatiously expressed her support for the dissident Olivier Falorni in a tweet last Tuesday. The tweet surprised party brass—Hollande had openly backed Royal—and bolstered persistent rumors that Trierweiler is irrationally jealous of the president's ex. In a poll, 69 percent of French adults surveyed (and 81 percent of left-wingers) disapproved of the tweet, although Trierweiler has since gained more than 40,000 followers on Twitter.
In La Rochelle, local right-wingers, scenting blood, had voiced their support for the leftist Falorni, who declined Socialist pleas to desist in Royal's favor. And Trierweiler's subsequent support left him beaming in TV interviews. In an aggressive speech in La Rochelle carried live on news networks after the vote, Royal lambasted Falorni for winning with far-right and right-wing votes. "Treason always betrays the traitor," she said, quoting Victor Hugo.
Yet when TV anchors asked Royal if she thought Trierweiler's tweet hurt her chances, she replied, "I think it didn't help things, I would say, tactfully." But it's a safe bet that Trierweiler hasn't seen the last of the defeated Socialist. Royal had made no secret she would seek to win speaker of the house if elected, widely interpreted as a sort of quid pro quo after she loyally campaigned for Hollande's victory. Some pundits feel now that she is still owed a political favor.
Meanwhile, far-right leader Marine Le Pen lost her bid for a lower-house seat by a mere 118 votes (out of 55,712), scoring 49.89 percent against a Socialist in northern France. But two other National Front representatives were elected for the first time since the 1998, including Le Pen's niece, Marion Maréchal–Le Pen, a granddaughter of firebrand National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
At only 22, fourth-year law student Maréchal–Le Pen is the youngest person elected to France's lower house in the history of the Fifth Republic. Blonde, pretty, and all smiles on the trail, she beat a right-wing incumbent in a three-way battle. (The third-placed Socialist candidate had refused to withdraw, despite entreaties from Socialist headquarters, which would have blocked the far-right-winger.) The inexperienced Maréchal–Le Pen is poised to be the junior, if more marketable, face in the National Front's legislative duo. The other winner, the brash and media-savvy lawyer Gilbert Collard, has promised to be a "democratic ball-breaker."
With only two elected members, not enough to form an official National Front group in the lower house, the pair's speaking time will be limited in session. But the symbolic win makes good on Marine Le Pen’s effort to rejuvenate the party after succeeding her father at the top last year. And it is another strike against former president Sarkozy's strategy of fomenting fears and playing to far-right ideas to combat the telegenic Le Pen.
Indeed, after Sarkozy's UMP party suffered a decisive defeat on Sunday night, several party bigwigs on Monday seemed to disown that strategy. Sarkozy, who lost his bid for a second term on May 6, has not spoken publicly since his concession speech. But a number of key politicians closely associated with him lost their bids for election, regardless.
One, the former minister and longtime Sarkozy cheerleader Nadine Morano, was caught out last week by a left-leaning comedian's radio prank call, which appeared to show her sympathizing with a (spoofed) National Front heavyweight. Michèle Alliot-Marie, the Sarkozy foreign minister who lost her cabinet post last year after offering Tunisia's dictatorial regime French security know-how to put down Arab Spring protests, lost the seat she'd held since 1986. And Claude Guéant, Sarkozy's longtime éminence grise turned hardline Interior minister, lost his first-time bid for elected office in suburban Paris.
Things could get uglier before they get better for the UMP. It is due for a hotly contested leadership battle ahead of a party convention in November. And Sarkozy himself, whose presidential immunity from prosecution lapsed on Friday, is already being pursued by lawyers in one of several scandals that weighed down his term.
But lest Hollande be tempted to celebrate his win, say, with a cheeky beach party in Los Cabos, pundits are quick to note how much of a disillusioned electorate sat out Sunday's contest, as 44 percent abstained. And others have warned that having "all the powers" means the French president won't have anyone but himself to blame if he fails. But with Hollande spending much of this week throwing his new weight around abroad—as he meets with G20 leaders Monday and Tuesday in Mexico, United Nations colleagues at a sustainable development conference on Wednesday in Rio, and German, Spanish, and Italian leaders on Friday in Rome, ahead of a key European summit next week—he will know all too well that France's problems aren't entirely his to solve.