New regions, new politics

France goes to the polls tomorrow to elect regional councils – roughly the equivalent of state parliaments – in its 13 regions (including Corsica, where it’s called the Assembly), plus four overseas possessions.

Even before the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, French politics was already in a state of ferment. For the last two years the neo-fascist National Front, led by the media-friendly Marine Le Pen, has gone from strength to strength, to the point where it is in roughly a three-way tie for support with the incumbent Socialists and the centre-right Republicans.

The terrorist attacks gave further scope for anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner agitation, the National Front’s specialty. Despite that, the trend in the polls has remained pretty constant. One released yesterday, for example, showed the Socialists and their allies with 33.5%, the National Front on 30% and the centre-right 29%.

In the last nationwide vote, for departmental councils back in March, the centre-left and centre-right finished almost dead level (with 36.7% and 36.6% respectively), ahead of the National Front’s 25.2%. But because departments are based on effectively single-member electorates, the far right came away with only a handful of seats – 66 out of more than four thousand.

Regional elections have a very different voting system, which it’s worth taking the time to understand.

Each region votes as one electorate, with voters choosing between lists put up by parties or groups of parties. Assuming (as will nearly always be the case) that no list wins an absolute majority in the first round, a second round of voting takes place a week later. In the meantime, three things happen:

(a) Lists that received less than 5% of the first-round vote are eliminated and their candidates excluded;

(b) Lists that received between 5% and 10% of the vote are eliminated, but their candidates are allowed to join one of the other lists if they can – that is, if they’re able to do a deal with one of the lists that got more than 10%;

(c) Lists that received more than 10% of the vote can stay in for the second round, but don’t have to – they too can withdraw and merge their candidates with another list if they wish.

The list that comes first in the second round is then automatically allocated one-quarter of the seats, and the remaining three-quarters are divided proportionally among all the lists. So with the winner’s bonus, a list only needs about one-third of the second-round vote to win a majority and therefore elect the regional president.

In other words, what the different parties do after the first round is critically important. If a region (as many will) has centre-left, centre-right and far-right all sitting somewhere around 30% after the first round, the two mainstream parties can choose to sink their differences in a joint ticket to make a common stand against the extremists.

The Socialists routinely offer to do this if they are the ones in third place. The centre-right doesn’t. And with former president Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm, the Republicans seem more than ever intent on competing for the National Front’s territory.

And unless its rivals co-operate, the National Front looks likely to come away with some regional presidencies for the first time: particularly in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, where Le Pen herself is standing, and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, where the ticket is headed by her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen

Sarkozy’s fond hope is that he will be the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2017 and succeed in knocking the Socialists into third place, thus putting himself into a runoff with Le Pen. He knows that in that case he will win comfortably, because Socialist voters, however reluctantly, will turn out to back him, as they did with Jacques Chirac against Le Pen’s father in 2002.

The Socialists, on the other hand, know that they will lose ground in the regions – they could hardly do otherwise, since they and their allies won 21 out of 22 in 2010. But the terrorist attacks have given a big boost to president François Hollande’s personal standing, and he has a year and a half to recover enough ground to make it to the second round of the presidential election.

In that case, the more extreme the candidate he is facing, the better: better Sarkozy than his Republican rival, Alain Juppé, and better Le Pen than either.

The other thing worth noting about tomorrow is that the map of the regions has changed dramatically since 2010. A long-debated reform last year reduced the number in metropolitan France from 22 to 13, producing some highly unwieldy names like Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes.

Description de cette image, également commentée ci-après

(Map courtesy of Wikipedia.)

In most European countries, sub-national units have historical roots that go back many centuries, however much they may have been tinkered with since. But France’s slate was wiped clean in the Revolution and a completely new set of units, called departments, created in the 1790s, with no regard to the old provincial boundaries.

The revolutionaries did a remarkably good job. The departments are still there, little changed, and when regions were first established in the 1950s they were all based on aggregations of departments. Now smaller regions in turn have been amalgamated into larger ones, with an average population of a bit under five million. (The relevant French Wikipedia article has lots of detail on the issues involved, with nice maps.)

I have to say I doubt very much that this configuration of regions, or anything much like it, will be still around in 200 years time. Like many local government amalgamations in Australia it looks like a set of hasty improvisations, driven by political imperatives and a general unreflective notion that “bigger is better”.

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