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Local elections in France: Revealing rehearsal before 2012 presidential elections

by Wael Abdel Hamid // Published April 8, 2011
logoelections cantonales 20111

On March 20 and 27, French voters elected their local representatives. These representatives (general counselors) are chosen town-by-town, and gather by departments and elect their president to represent their fellow voters at the regional level. In other words, French local elections are a relatively minor step in the electoral calendar that will bring France to vote for its president in May 2012. 

However, these elections are significant to study the changing face of French political landscape, and give us some relevant clues as to how the 2012 presidential elections may unfold.

Like many elections in France, local elections ("les elections cantonales"), use a two-round, majority winner-take-all system. If in a first round a candidate gets a majority of votes, he is directly elected. If not, the two candidates with the most votes dispute in a second round. 

 The only exceptions to this system are for electing European Parliament members, municipal councils for cities with more than 3500 inhabitants, some senators (even if they are elected by an electoral college) depending on their region, and regional elections which use proportional representation system. For further information on this system's use in France, check out our blog posts made by our former French interns, Pauline Lejeune and Eve Robert

Even thought such elections are  a minor event, the outcome of the polls deserves to be analyzed as they gives us invaluable indications on the changing French political landscape, one year before the next major election.

The first obvious and striking result is the clear setback to presidenti Nicolas Sarkoky and his majority party in the House, the UMP (Union des Mouvements Populaires). Taken in a national view, the party, with results of 20.3% in the second round and 16.97% in the first round,  is showing  a great regression compared to its results in the same elections in 2004 when they earned 27.22 % of votes.

UMP is now forced into a bad position after 4 years of Sarkozy's government. They suffer from internal dissensions, and one of their main personalities, the former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, decided to distance himself after a judicial clash against the current president. He finally created his own party, Republique solidaire.

Between the two rounds of the election, current Prime Minister Francois Fillon and chief of UMP Jean Francois Cope argued on the instructions they would give to their supporters in the provinces and as a result they were not even represented at the second round. When Fillon called for the formation of a "Republican Front" with the socialist party to prevent the extreme-right wing party, Front National from winning representatives, Cope called for a "neither-nor" strategy, incenting people to not give their votes to both sides.

Indeed, the biggest news from these elections was, without the shadow of a doubt, Marine Le Pen's Front National's results. The extreme right party earned 15.2% in the first round, nearly as much as the UMP even if they finally get two representatives after the second round. While these results are higher than to be expected, they illustrate that the FN is settling into the French political landscape as the Third force of the "UMPS" system (in recent election, two main center-right parties that are usually sharing the votes). Their leader, Marine Le Pen, daughter of the historical founding father of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, seems to be poised for greater success than her father. She is well versed in French politics, and is able to recruit new voters to her party Le Pen may even be the second candidate of the 2012 presidential election, behind the socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn and ahead of  Nicolas Sarkozy.

The increase of votes for the Front National should not obscure the fact that Socialist Party was the main winner of election/. With 25.2% of votes after the first round and 660 representatives after the second round, the main left wing party controls a majority of French provinces. The left political wing which had become blurry and divided in recent years seems to have been successfully reorganized by supporters of the rise of "Front de Gauche's" leader, Jean Luc Melenchon.

However troubles may well appear again, when the party searches for a 2012 presidential candidates. The chair leader of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss Kahn is considered the favorite, but the general secretary of the party, Martine Aubry or the former general secretary Francois Hollande will likely seek the nomination as well.

In a more general view, local elections have been a way to notice that women representations rates remain stagnate.  Rising from 13.1% in 2008 to 13.8% in 2011 (280 counselors), women's representation has progressed "as a turtle" according to UMP's deputy, Chantal Brunel. In spite of a "parite" law which mandates a French party to provide a certain threshold of women candidates, Brunel judges that "with 86.2% of men elected for this poll, equity between men and women if still far from being installed".

Finally, if these elections provide a good framework of analysis of the changing French political landscape, they serve to further highlight low voting turnout. 55.2% of French voters didn't get to the polls for the first round, and 36.2% for the second round. This difference between the two runoffs could be explained by the national front's score. Like in 2002 when Jean Marie Le Pen accessed the second round of presidential elections, abstainers got chocked by such a strong performance from the extreme-right party and massively voted for the other candidate (Chirac in 2002).
That is also the reason why despite 15.2% of votes in the first round and 11% in the second round, the National Front only had two representatives elected. For instance, in the Marseille Mazargue's canton FN's candidate Marandat led the poll in the first round before being largely beaten by the UMP Reault. 

This very “American” rate leads me to reference the Teacher Curriculum on Voting Turnout in the United States I am working on with my fellow associate, Dean Searcy. This work will also be translated in French and adapt to the French situation. Stay tuned!