Following his election as president of France last month, Nicolas Sarkozy’s right wing UMP party has now won a majority in the National Assembly.
The two rounds of the parliamentary elections, held on 10 and 17 June, confirmed many of the tendencies that emerged during the presidential poll in the spring.
Although the right has managed to hold on to power (the first government to be re-elected since 1978), its victory is not the crushing landslide that many envisaged. In fact, it has won fewer seats than in 2002 (313 against 356).
The Socialist Party (PS), meanwhile, has won more seats than in 2002 and the Communist Party (PCF) has retained 15 deputies despite predictions that its vote would collapse altogether.
The new “centre right” party of François Bayrou, the media darling of the presidential election, won a mere three seats.
More significantly, the fascist Front National (FN) returned its worst results since its electoral breakthrough in the early 1980s, winning 4.3 percent of the first round poll and no deputies.
The election is confirmation that the French right under Sarkozy has seized the political initiative from its rivals, and in particular from a disoriented and directionless Socialist Party.
A battle will now take place for the control of the PS, with the most likely outcome a leadership that seeks closer links with the centre right.
In the aftermath of his election Sarkozy has attempted to dress up his hardline neoliberal project in a more “inclusive” image by coopting into his government a handful of the more unprincipled figures on the Socialist left – for example Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, who is Sarkozy’s new foreign minister.
But the limited scope of the right’s victory is evidence that Sarkozy will not have things all his own way.
A recent poll showed that more people believe that the government has been weakened than strengthened by the second round vote.
This was underlined by the defeat in Bordeaux of Alain Juppé, one of the leading figures in the new administration, who has now been forced to resign his government position, prompting an embarrassing reshuffle barely a month after the government was formed.
The right’s victory is less the expression of widespread enthusiasm for authoritarian neoliberalism than a consequence of the Socialists’ failure to provide coherent opposition to Sarkozy.
The radical left still has some way to go in building a viable electoral alternative to the Socialists, with the combined Trotskyist vote standing at around 3.5 percent and the PCF scoring just over 4 percent.
But the voting figures reveal something important about the mainstream’s inability to mobilise popular support, and therefore about the potential of such alternatives to develop.
The desire to avoid a repeat of the 2002 presidential election, when the FN came second, meant that only 16 percent of the electorate abstained in this year’s presidential election.
Yet in both rounds of the parliamentary elections this month around 40 percent of the electorate abstained.
In the first round this abstention figure included 51 percent of voters under 25 and 49 percent of workers.
Early indications are that many of these people turned out to vote in the second round, alarmed at the right’s reactionary agenda and in particular its plans to raise VAT in order, it claimed, to fund social spending.
The right is afraid that resistance to its attacks on the welfare state and the labour movement will inflict fatal defeats on the government, as has happened in the past.
Such is its sensitivity on this issue that the minister of the economy, Jean-Louis Borloo, appointed in May, was shifted to another department this week once the scale of opposition to his plans for an increase in VAT became clear.
The record abstention levels in this election are a powerful indication of the divorce between mainstream parties and the concerns of ordinary people in France.
The inability of most politicians to connect with these concerns was underlined by a recent study that revealed 75 percent of voters under 35 did not know the name of their parliamentary deputy.
While this election shows that Sarkozy is not all-powerful, he does have a clear majority in parliament which he will now use to implement tax breaks for the rich, cuts in healthcare and social security, and attacks on workers and immigrants.
The radical left’s ability to turn alarm at these policies into effective, united opposition to the right’s offensive and the Socialists’ backsliding will shape the extent to which Sarkozy is able to have things his own way in the months and years to come.
Jim Wolfreys is the author of » France In Revolt: 1995-2005 in International Socialism Journal 206, Winter 2006.
He will be speaking on Pierre Bourdieu at » www.marxismfestival.org.uk