France keeps out the fascists, but at what cost?

The French departmental elections, which concluded on Sunday (see my first round preview here), showed a remarkable degree of support for the far-right National Front. But it wasn’t strong enough to overcome the electoral system, so departmental governance – to the extent that it matters to anything much – will mostly be business as usual.

It’s true that there’s been a huge shift from left to right. The Socialist Party and its allies have lost control of up to 28 of the 101 departments, with only one (Lozère) swinging the other way. But there’s nothing unusual about that; unpopular incumbent governments in France (which is most of them) generally do badly in local elections, as this one did a year ago when it was municipalities voting.

Sometimes that presages national defeat, but not always. The centre-left swept the regional elections of 2004, for example, but still managed to lose the presidency three years later – to Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now back in the leadership of the centre-right UMP and readying for another tilt at the top job.

Certainly Sunday’s result is a good omen for the UMP, although not necessarily for Sarkozy himself. His party’s strong performance depended critically on having mended fences with its centrist allies, which has been more a project of Sarkozy’s rivals. But whether those rivals will be able to rally around an alternative presidential candidate remains to be seen.

Where this year’s election could have been different was the groundswell of support for the National Front. In the first round, the two major blocs finished almost exactly level, 36.6% for the UMP and its allies and 36.7% for the various parties of the left and centre-left. But the National Front was not far behind with 25.2%.

When seats were decided, however, things looked very different. The centre-right won 2,396, the left 1,597, but the far right only 66 – just ahead of independents, who won 49 seats for their 1.3% of the vote. None of the departments will have a National Front majority, or even close, although in Aisne and Vaucluse it will have the balance of power.

(Official results are here; I’m assuming without checking them all that whoever added up the seats for Wikipedia got them roughly correct. For those who can navigate in French, Le Monde’s coverage is excellent.)

The system of two-round voting in what are effectively single-member districts (although candidates are elected in male-female pairs, or “binômes”) makes it almost impossible for a third party that is disliked by both the majors to win a significant number of seats. Imagine how many votes One Nation would have had to win (after the Coalition stopped giving it preferences) to pick up a large bloc of seats in the House of Representatives and you’ll have a good idea of what the National Front faces.

I think anyone who cares about democracy is going to have mixed feelings about this. Of course it’s good to see fascists being kept out of power. But it would be better if that result was a product of people not voting for them, rather than the system being stacked against them.

For National Front leader Marine Le Pen, not having as much of a platform in the departments as she might have hoped is a relatively minor setback. More important is her ability to nurse a sense of grievance among her followers, their feeling that France’s politicians are engaged in a conspiracy against decent and patriotic people like themselves. And that’s just been given a big boost.



2 thoughts on “France keeps out the fascists, but at what cost?

  1. Whether voting systems are deemed good or bad tends to depend on whether or not the results please the observer. The extent to which similar systems are dubbed good one day and bad the next by the same person saddens but no longer surprises any competent and reasonably objective observer.


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