French President Nicolas Sarkozy's party, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, suffered a drubbing in the regional elections of the past two Sundays.
The center-left Socialists took 21 of 22 French mainland regions, with 52 percent of the vote. Mr. Sarkozy's UMP received 36 percent. The American equivalent of the French vote would be if the Democrats held the White House and a majority in the Congress, but the Republicans took 48 of the 50 states in state elections across the country. Mr. Sarkozy, like U.S. President Barack Obama, faces reelection in 2012. Another parallel is that the French Socialists, like America's Republicans, have no obvious presidential candidate teed up.
It is generally agreed that Mr. Sarkozy's conservatives lost the election because of the state of the French economy. It, like America's, suffers from high unemployment and generally fragile health. France faces the additional risk of being dragged down by its membership, along with ailing Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, in the euro zone.
Interpretation of the French election results -- and, even more difficult, the effort to draw comparisons with America's political situation -- presents problems. Were the election results and the rejection of Mr. Sarkozy's center-right government basically an expression of anti-incumbent sentiment on the part of the French voters? Things aren't going well. He is president. It is his fault. Vote against him.
Or did Mr. Sarkozy's party pay the price for the decline in the standard of living of the French people because of specific economic and financial policies that he pursued, or didn't pursue? Did the French voter turn to the Socialists because they thought that their approach would be more likely to put the ship of state on a more felicitous course?
It's probably a combination of the two. More liberal governments are less likely to cut social benefits in the face of an economic storm than more conservative ones. But it is also the case that the French are quick to turn on a leader -- any leader -- in the face of national adversity. Mr. Sarkozy has also received criticism for his visible, sometimes flamboyant, prideful lifestyle, an approach on the part of their presidents about which the French are ambivalent. It is probably fair to say they admire style, but dislike expressions of vanity.
As far as American parallels are concerned, presumably to be revealed in November's congressional elections, it is difficult to predict. The Republicans hope that an anti-incumbent spirit will prevail against the majority Democrats. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that the voters would believe that Republicans in power would be more compassionate toward those suffering from the economic downturn.