France held its first round of nationwide local elections March 22. A coalition of center-right forces led by Sarkozy won 29.4 percent of the vote, while the National Front of Marine Le Pen came in second with 25.2 percent. The ruling Socialist Party received roughly 22 percent of the vote and finished third, revealing that French President Francois Hollande is still struggling to win back popular support in a country where unemployment remains high and economic growth is negligible.
The vote confirmed the popularity of the National Front, which had received 24.9 percent of the vote in the 2014 EU Parliament elections. Le Pen’s party will compete in the second round, which will be held March 29 in half of France’s cantons. However, the National Front will once again have to deal with its chronic problem of finding enough popular support to win a runoff election. France’s two-round system was designed to prevent extremist parties from taking over, and the National Front has repeatedly struggled to translate its high levels of popular support into actual seats in parliament or local councils.
But the runoff elections will also present a challenge for Sarkozy and his allies because the center right is divided on whether to support the center left in the districts where it competes against the far right. After the results were announced, Socialist Party Prime Minister Manuel Valls asked the center right to support the center left in runoff elections against the National Front. But Sarkozy asked UMP voters to support neither — a decision that goes against France’s "republican pact," under which moderate parties are expected to join forces against the far right in runoff elections. Alain Juppe, who opposes Sarkozy within the UMP, has been vocal about the danger of possibly strengthening the National Front.
The situation is similar in Andalusia, where the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers' Party won re-election with 35 percent of the vote but failed to secure enough seats in the regional parliament to form a government on its own. The election was marked by a weak performance by the center-right Popular Party and gains by Podemos and Ciudadanos, which finished in third and fourth, respectively. On March 23, regional President Susana Diaz announced that she would govern alone. However, she will need support from other parties to pass legislation, which means that the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party will have to reach some degree of understanding with other parties to govern.
Formal or informal alliances in Andalusia will send a political message to the rest of Spain, which will hold regional elections in May and general elections in November or December. The Andalusian election also offered an early preview of the country’s political fragmentation. Opinion polls show that the traditional power holders, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party and the Popular Party, will be competing head-to-head with Podemos and Ciudadanos in many of the regional elections and, most notably, in the general elections. So far, the parties have remained coy when discussing the possibility of forming alliances, but with the current state of political fragmentation, striking post-electoral agreements will probably be necessary to form a national government.
The weakening of traditional political actors and the emergence of the new anti-establishment parties can be traced directly back to Europe's economic crisis. Europeans are growing tired of spending cuts, weak economic activity and especially in Spain's case, continued corruption scandals. These new parties have very different ideologies, but they share at least two key elements: they oppose the traditional elites, and they criticize different aspects of the European integration process. Podemos, for example, opposes austerity measures and demands a renegotiation of Spain’s debt, while the National Front questions the free movement of people in Europe and France’s membership in the eurozone.
As the local elections in France and the regional election in Andalusia show, these parties are still struggling to actually access power. But even if they fail to enter governments, these parties will continue to influence the political agenda of their countries and their electoral bases will continue to grow, a trend that will define Europe in the coming years.