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The World’s Dumbest Conservatives

How to turn a successful majority coalition into a perpetual election-losing machine

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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At least Cameron, Merkel, and Rutte still cling to power, no matter the abandonment of principle. In May, France’s voters, who largely agreed with the nominally conservative ideas of President Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, fired it. The UMP had controlled the presidency and often the chamber of deputies since Jacques Chirac was elected in 1995, when he led the UMP’s predecessor party, Rally for the Republic. Sarkozy was vulnerable because his 2007 presidential platform was Schwarzenegger-like: cracking down on crime, liberalizing work rules and limits on weekly hours, and lowering taxes. Alas, he governed as Schwarzenegger did as well. He pushed reforms until students and unions pushed back, then lowered his flag and declared mission accomplished. After 17 years of infinitesimally conservative rule, the public had had its fill. Sarkozy did better than expected, but he lost to the Socialist party’s François Hollande, who boasted, like Harding, of his normalcy. French journalists, far to the left even of our own, couldn’t wait to quote the cliché coined by the 1950s Socialist premier Guy Mollet when he said, “We’re lucky to be running for reelection against the dumbest conservatives in the world.” After the second round vote in May, the media promptly fired or demoted several popular conservative columnists and on-air commentators. The UMP naturally turned on itself.

The media explained that a left-wing government was long overdue and hungered for by the French -public. French conservatives weren’t so sure. The two-round system by which French presidents are selected enabled a detailed look at the actual electorate between the two election days. Anyone who was not a reporter could see that at least
46 percent​—​perhaps as much as 48 percent​—​of voters were right-of-center, 43 percent left-of-center. Looking at these numbers, Parisian conservative politician Bernard Debré declared, “We are not only the dumbest, but the most pretentious right wing. And more: the most selfish and the least diligent.” How could they have lost?

Ten parties faced off against one another in round one: The major players were the Socialist party on the left, and the two big right-wing parties, Sarkozy’s UMP and Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN). The Socialists and the UMP won the right to go to the second round with vote counts of 10.3 and 9.8 million respectively, together 56 percent of the total voters who chose a party. Coming third was Le Pen’s farther-right party, with 6.4 million (if you don’t count the astonishing 9 million blank ballots cast). To win the second round, Sarkozy had a right-of-center pool of 7 million additional first-round voters consisting of Le Pen’s following and supporters of a smaller conservative party.

Hollande’s Socialists and the French media had no objections to electoral alliances with the smaller parties on the left, however extreme: Communist, neo-Stalinist, and anti-Semitic (“anti-Zionist”) parties were welcomed. But they brought Hollande only 5.5 million more voters. Up for grabs were the 3.3 million voters for a centrist group led by an ex-Sarkozy associate, not rightists but certainly anti-socialists. Adding only the avowedly right-wing and left-wing voters to the first-round winners would give Sarkozy 16.8 million supporters, Hollande 15.8 million.

Was the deciding second round close? It was neither close nor right-of-center. Sarkozy did indeed add 7 million votes to his first-round total. But Hollande received the votes of 7.7 million. The partie le plus bête had earned its name. National Front supporters who didn’t stay home likely divided their votes between the two frontrunners. For a number of good reasons the UMP gave her, Marine Le Pen had refused to give a “voting directive” to her supporters to back Sarkozy. The first was that in an ambush clearly organized by Sarkozy’s party just six weeks before the first round, Le Pen suddenly found it almost impossible to get the 500 signatures of French mayors she needed to qualify for the ballot​—​signatures that even eccentric little parties normally have no trouble collecting. While she chased after mayors willing to sign in the glare of media publicity, Sarkozy seized the opportunity to run to the right. He promised to do what he had neglected to do in his first term: check immigration, reform welfare, and institute law and order policing and justice. Simultaneously, Sarkozy’s surrogates announced that if Le Pen made it into the second round, UMP supporters should vote for the Socialists rather than Le Pen​—​whom they styled as extremist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic, when in fact she was the only candidate who had committed herself to treat  Israel as if it had the same standing as non-Jewish states.

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