What Has Changed in France and What Else Will Change?

Ten months have passed between the last and most recent terrorist attacks in Paris. A three-party system is being established in France.

The state of affairs in France is very different from the situation that prevailed following the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo. The general public and French politicians reacted differently to the act of terror this time. First, society has come to realize that everyone without exception — not just politicized reporters or members of the Jewish community — are potential targets; the latest attack pounded home the cold-hard fact that France is at war at home. People know clearly that there will be more attacks and they are fighting a protracted battle. As for politicians, even though everyone was talking then and is talking now about unity, in reality this unity was present in January, but now it is nowhere to be seen.
The November 13 events may have vast political and electoral consequences. Two rounds of regional elections will be held in France on December 6 and 13 (elections of regional councils and elections of regional heads). These elections are important for several reasons. First, the regional authorities in France enjoy extended powers in the economic and social spheres. Second, the elections will, for the first time, be held in the already enlarged regions (before the reforms there were 22 regions and now there are 13), meaning that the regions will be stronger and have more clout. Third, and for many it is the most important factor, these are the last elections before the 2017 presidential elections.

Prior to the tragic events of November 13, various polls revealed the following two trends — the fragmentation and shrinkage of the left electorate, which reflects the overall assessment of Francois Hollande as president; and the strengthening of right and extreme-right parties. The following election results were predicted prior to the November 13 attacks. Whereas now the socialists “rule” in 21 of 22 regions, they can claim only three to four regions max in the new regional geography. The Republicans can come to power in seven to eight regions. The polls also confirm the high chances of the far-right, notably Marine Le Pen, of winning in the northernmost region (Lille). Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen's niece) has a chance to win in France’s southernmost region (Marseille). This confirms the idea that a three-party system is being established in France.

How will these events affect the election results? Many expect the far-right forces to gain more popularity (On Sunday, December 6, Marine Le Pen and Marion Marechal-Le Pen established themselves as major players in France's political arena). Perhaps there will be more of their supporters, but their numbers are unlikely to double or triple, as some pundits claim. However, the political realities in France are such that sometimes just 2 to 3 percent of votes in the second round may affect an outcome; even a slightest change in proportions between parties can dramatically change the results.

The tragedy has affected French foreign policy as well. Unlike in January, its foreign policy has effectively changed in the past few days. Notably, since early fall, Hollande has started disassociating himself from the hardline stance on Syria of Laurent Fabius (who wants al-Assad to go before tackling other issues). One can even say that the president began to move away from the policy of his own Foreign Ministry. Why? Because the president and a number of politicians and observers were becoming increasingly aware of the strategic stalemate, and this awareness grew stronger after Russia’s intervention as France cannot stay on the sidelines or out of the game. Politicians from the right and Nicolas Sarkozy personally said much earlier that the Syria crisis cannot be resolved without Russia. Hollande's visits to the United States and Russia are a complete turnaround in French foreign policy, which potentially opens the way to full-scale cooperation with Russia.

There are several unanswered questions. What will be the specific outcome of the meeting between Hollande and Putin in military and political terms as they apply to Syria? Will Hollande be able to implement these decisions?

There is much hidden resistance. First, in France itself - from the Atlanticists in the Foreign Ministry and other departments (where they have dominated in recent years). Second, on behalf of the United States, which perceives as a threat a possible alliance between France and Russia. Additionally, there is resistance from Brussels and some EU member-states.

The last open question is if a potential rapprochement between France and Russia on Syria will go beyond Syria and affect the settlement of the Ukraine conflict, the sanctions and the European processes? According to our sources, even before the tragedy, France wanted to send a positive message to Russia and refrain from extending sanctions in their current form. It is likely that this message will now be sent and be supported by other countries.

Both in Russia and in the West, many regret that following 9/11 the world lost the chance to put the Cold War behind them and change the paradigm.

Hopefully, the current tragedy in the West will nudge nations to go ahead and effect such a change — and this time we will not squander such a historic opportunity.

This article was originally published in Russian in The New Times magazine.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.