PARIS — The electoral surge was on scale with the threat at hand: The rise in turnout from the first to second rounds of France's regional elections was so strong that it prevented the conquest of several regional governments by the far-right National Front party, which tallied the highest number of votes in its entire history.
Rejection was followed by refusal. Once again, voters of traditional parties, left- and right-wing, combined their votes to withstand a thriving far-right party, ultimately denying any side a true victory.
In the wake of the second round, these symmetrical ebbs and flows, the seemingly predictable reflexes, might seem reassuring, as if the old electoral clockwork of the past 30 years was still functioning — for better or worse. As if the National Front's time was bound never to arrive.
And yet, the results are in fact as worrying as they were after the first round. Now we see more clearly just how broken our democratic machinery is; even as we may be lulled again to not feel the urgency to repair it before it disintegrates completely.
Tempted by business as usual
On Sunday evening, leaders of both the establishment right and left vowed that they had learned their lesson from voters even more clearly than they had back on April 21, 2002, when the then leader of the National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round of the presidential election. All gave humble and cautious speeches. Yet, their first priorities were to find a way to position themselves for internal party battles in the coming months. The temptation to return to "business as usual" is once again particularly strong with the preparation of the presidential election in early 2017.
Elections have their own way of following in the logic of the one that came before. This denial of reality will, sooner or later, lead to a disaster. It would be quite troubling to move into the never-ending presidential campaign that lies ahead in 2016 without having first faced the many angers expressed at the polls. Starting with the despair of National Front voters, stemming from a feeling of helplessness facing mass unemployment, of injustice facing inequalities and of neglect by public authorities, all the frustrations that Marine Le Pen's party manipulates by stigmatizing scapegoats.
It will also be crucial to listen to the disillusionment of the huge number of people who have abstained from voting. These voters who only go to polls — until when? — to avert an immediate threat, who only vote, irregularly, "against," for lack of having found a project that would convince them to vote "for" someone or something. These citizens, especially the young, no longer feel the need to register on electoral rolls and feel more and more comfortable drifting away from the democratic life.
To handle this jumble of disappointments, there is much work to do. It includes a change in the voting method, a new reduction of the number of different offices a politician can hold simultaneously, a renewal of the political class, an opening to civil society.
But, in these times of designating scapegoats, it is also important not to put all the blame on political leaders. Elected representatives don't have the monopoly on cynicism and selfishness. To overcome this democratic crisis, certain public virtues that are fading away need to be restored: the sense of compromise, an appreciation for complexity, respect for dialogue, taking the long view.
At the end of a calamitous 2015 for France, our country cannot afford to spare itself a deep renovation of its political life. The 2017 presidential campaigns must be a laboratory for this. These goals are not unrealistic: After all, it was in Paris this same past weekend that — at the price of infinite patience, mutual concessions and cutting-edge diplomacy — that a major deal, that of the COP21, has just been signed between 195 different countries with a multitude of competing interests.