As I survey the wreckage this morning, I wonder what comes next. Even if President Hollande tells himself that he is playing a long game, that the famous "curve of unemployment" has at last begun to creep upward, and that a feeble recovery is underway in Europe, he has to recognize that he has lost his wager with the French people. Nearly 40 percent abstained from voting, and abstention was particularly high in the working class and among the young. The PS may hold on to Paris by the skin of its teeth, and it will hold other important cities like Lille and Lyon, but its serene reign at the local and regional level is over. Just two years after the Right was driven from office, and despite numerous affairs and scandals that stain every aspect of its past and present, it can still claim to have mobilized more voters and greater enthusiasm than the now thoroughly discredited Left. As for the Front National, the evidence is clear: it is henceforth firmly implanted across France. It racked up truly impressive scores in a number of medium-sized cities. While it remains an anti-immigrant party, it is now more than ever an anti-Establishment party first and foremost, and the Establishment has been shaken to its foundations.
So Hollande faces a challenge. The "normal" presidency has failed. The attempt to "lead from behind" or from the shadows has failed. The continuation of politics by the means of soft and stealthy compromise that served Hollande only too well as leader of the PS has failed to produce a consensus at the national level. So, as Le Monde says in today's editorial, Hollande must change. Since he is not a stupid or unperceptive man, he no doubt recognizes the need. But is he capable of meeting it? And what can he do that will not reek of desperation?
A ministerial shakeup is no doubt in the offing, but if it is the usual reshuffle of the same old faces, it will accomplish nothing. Yet ouverture is unlikely to yield anything either: who from the Right would want to sign on to this sinking ship? To be sure, he might reach out beyond the political sphere to what is nowadays called "civil society." He could replace the hapless Ayrault with, say, a respected business leader like Louis Gallois. That would get the attention of the chattering classes, but it would further alienate the left-wing electorate, and the Right would deride the move as an act of desperation. He could make Valls prime minister, but Valls, although popular, is rather volatile, and it remains to be seen how he would perform under pressure. And what would he do? It's one thing to be a law-and-order interior minister, another thing to assume responsibility for a stalled economy, an area in which Valls has no demonstrated competence. Well, no use speculating: we'll see soon enough. But given Hollande's track record, the response is likely to fall short of expectations.