French local elections for beginners

There were no national elections in Europe this weekend, but France had the next best thing: municipal elections across the country, in a country that has more municipalities than anywhere.

You can read all the headline news at the BBC or the Guardian or Al-Jazeera. (Or for French readers, comprehensive reports at Le Monde, with detailed results here.) They give the same message: the elections have been a setback for the Socialist government of president François Hollande and prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. The centre-right UMP has made gains, but so, more worryingly, has the far-right National Front.

The National Front is said to have scored about 7% of the vote nationwide. That doesn’t sound a lot, especially compared to the 17.9% it won in the 2012 presidential election, but it ran candidates in only a relatively small number of municipalities. Its ticket scored a first-round victory in the northern city of Hénin-Beaumont, and leads in several others, including Forbach, Fréjus and Perpignan.

The centre-right looks like displacing sitting centre-left majorities in such major cities as Amiens, Belfort, Caen and Valence, although Socialist control of Paris looks reasonably secure.

What the news reports don’t do, however, is explain how the municipal elections actually work, and without that knowledge much of the coverage must be mysterious. So what follows is an effort to explain the system.*

Candidates for municipal councils present themselves in lists, with as many candidates as there are positions on the council. The lists may be endorsed by a party, or a coalition of parties, or may be independent. They’re referred to by the name of their top candidate, who will usually be that list’s pick for mayor. Voters simply vote for a list; if one list gets a majority of the vote in the first round, it wins. If not, a second round of voting is held a week later (that is, next Sunday).

For the second round, lists that got less than 10% of the vote in the first round are eliminated. However, if they got more than 5%, they can do a deal with one of the surviving lists to have some of their candidates incorporated on it. Lists with more than 10% can stay in, but don’t have to: they also can withdraw and form a coalition with one of the other lists to maximise their chances. The list with the most votes in the second round wins, whether or not it has a majority.

The winning list (first or second round) automatically gets half the seats on the council. The other half are then divided up proportionally (using a largest-remainder system) among all the lists, including the winning one, that got more than 5% of the vote. So a list that wins with 40% of the vote would end up with about 70% of the seats (50% + 50%x40%). The three biggest cities – Paris, Lyon and Marseille – have a ward system, where the above procedure applies to each ward rather than the city as a whole.

Councils sit for six-year terms. (The last elections were in 2008.) At its first meeting, the new council elects the mayor from among its members.

So the system provides plenty of scope for deal-making, particularly in the week between the first and second rounds. The Socialist Party has called for a “republican front” in which it and the UMP would merge their lists where necessary to lock out the National Front. The UMP has rejected the idea: it promises to be neutral as between the left and the far right, not withdrawing its candidates to assist either.

Jean-François Copé, president of the UMP, promised it would “never call for a vote for the National Front, but no more for a Socialist Party that is allied with the [communist-dominated] Left Front.”

Compared to the deals that some European centre-right parties have done with the far right, that shows a degree of restraint. Whether it will be enough to keep the National Front from power in some major French cities remains to be seen.


* I regret I’ve been unable to find a good description of it in English. The official French legislation is here; the French Wikipedia has quite a detailed summary. The above description is for cities and towns with more than 1,000 inhabitants, which of course is where almost all the political action is.

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