Merkel and Sarkozy rattled by election losses

Germany's antinuclear Green Party won control of a state government for the first time in local elections Sunday. In France, Le Pen's right-wing party gained momentum.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
German Chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Angela Merkel and Stefan Mappus, top candidate of the CDU in the Baden-Wuerttemberg state election (not pictured), hold a news conference after a party meeting in Berlin on March 28.
Lionel Bonaventure/Reuters
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy takes part in a meeting of the Strategic Council for enhancing France's investment attractiveness (CSA) at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 28.

Germany veered left, and France continued shifting further right in local elections Sunday that popped a few eyes in Europe. In both cases, the ruling parties of Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy received sharp blows.

Germany is the biggest surprise. Voters alarmed over Japan’s nuclear crisis gave enough backing to the Green Party in Baden-Württemberg to allow them their first control of a state government. The rolling wealthy industrial countryside centered in Stüttgart had been a conservative stronghold held by Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) since 1953.

The victory came amid streets full of nuclear energy protests in Germany and despite Merkel’s abrupt decision this month to abandon a quiet pro-nuclear policy and shut down seven of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors after a tsunami hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant March 11.

The new Le Pen: A rising power

In French elections Sunday it was no surprise that the Socialist Party, with strong local reach and organization, scored well at 36 percent. What is striking is the continued rise of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front and the relative scarcity of Mr. Sarkozy’s ruling party in an election notable for low turnout even though it is the last national poll before presidential elections next spring.

The French vote was round 2 for some 100 districts, and Sarkozy’s UMP party was routed, in some regions losing half its traditional totals, while the National Front in some places scored 40 percent.

Ms. Le Pen, tall and telegenic, has taken control and is altering the image of Europe’s premier far-right party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, historically known as anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. She is moving to institutionalize the National Front in the mind of French voters by abandoning the old screeds against Jews, and including gays, while at the same time picking up on a general mainstream worry about Muslims.

“Marine Le Pen is beginning to transform the National Front from a protest party into a political alternative,” argued Stéphane Rozès at the French graduate school Sciences Po on Monday.

Earlier in the month as refugees from upheavals in North Africa landed at Italy’s Lampedusa Island in the Mediterranean, the new Le Pen made a high-profile visit, meeting refugees, noting that no other political figures bothered to visit them in their hour of need.

But she also said, “I want Europe to realize what is happening here. European leaders are looking the other way, trying to minimize the risk of migratory flows…. I told [the refugees]: I have compassion for you, I also have a heart, but Europe does not have the capacity to receive you. We do not have the financial means to do so anymore."

'This is not a break in the dike' for Merkel's party

If the French vote tracks a slow shift in the national electorate toward middle-class conservatism, the German vote appears to be shaped more by immediate dynamics: the leaking Japan reactors, the recent resignation of Merkel’s ostensible successor, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg who was caught for plagiarizing his doctoral thesis, and Germany’s abstention at the United Nations on the intervention in Libya. Also contributing is the unpopular project “Stuttgart 21” – a megatrain station complex seen locally as foisted on the city by the federal government.

Yet while the strong showing by the Greens brought a shudder in the ranks of Merkel's CDU it is not yet seen as threatening the CDU’s current governing coalition or seriously damaging Merkel’s leadership.

“It’s a historical defeat but Germany retains a leading economy that is reducing unemployment, and let's not forget that the CDU also scored an astonishing 40 percent in Baden-Württemberg. This is not a break in the dike,” says Ulrike Guérot of the European Council of Foreign Relations. “The best thing the Greens projected is modesty. In the case of nuclear power, if you shut it down, then you need to replace 25 percent of Germany’s power grid, quickly.”

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