The dust has settled and figures are all final from Sunday’s second round of the French regional elections. But it’s worth spending a moment to review what happened, since there’s plenty of scope for confusion: the Australian attention span for European elections is fleetingly brief at the best of times, and most of our information comes from British or American sources that have no acquaintance with preferential voting.
And so we find suggestions that the failure of the National Front* to convert any of its six first-round leads into actual victories was the result of a collapse in its vote (no, it stayed stable), or of its opponents colluding against it (they didn’t, unless you have an odd understanding of “collusion”), or of its voters being swamped by increased turnout (turnout did increase sharply, but not to any noticeably partisan effect).
The regional elections are essentially a preferential vote (conducted over two rounds) of which the last stage is missing: what matters – with an important exception that I’ll come to shortly – is the three-party-preferred vote. With a lot of minor parties on the ballot in the first round, none of them very sympathetic to the far right, there’s nothing surprising about a leader on primary votes dropping to second or third after preferences are counted.
So consider the region in which the National Front came closest to victory, Burgundy/Franche-Comté. The first-round vote was as follows:
If you’re used to preferential voting, and you know that France Arise (Debout la France) and the centrists (MoDem) basically line up with the centre-right while the Left Front and the Greens are allies of the centre-left, then you can see that’s going to be close to a three-way tie. And so it was: the centre-left just got home with 34.7% in the second round, to the centre-right’s 32.9% and the National Front on 32.4%.
Most regions exhibited a similar pattern. In Centre-Val de Loire, for example, the Socialist-led centre-left list had only 24.3% of the first-round vote, in third place behind the National Front on 30.5%. But adding in their allies gave a combined centre-left vote of 35.5%, so it was no surprise that they won the second round with almost exactly that (actually 35.4%).
But there were some special cases. In three regions, the National Front led in the first round by a sufficiently large margin that even the combined centre-left vote couldn’t outweigh it. In those cases, the Socialist Party directed its candidates to withdraw and support the centre-right, in what it calls “republican solidarity”. In Alsace/Champagne-Ardenne/Lorraine the local Socialists refused to comply and were disendorsed; almost half the centre-left vote deserted anyway to the centre-right, which won comfortably.
In the other two regions, Nord-Pas-de-Calais/Picardy and Provence-Alps-Cote d’Azur, the Socialists withdrew and the contest was reduced to a two-party-preferred race, which in each case the centre-right won comfortably – although in both regions the second round saw a noticeable rise in the number of blank ballots, presumably from disaffected Socialists.
The absence of a centre-left ticket in those two regions is partly responsible for the poor headline result for the left. On the first round vote, the combined centre-left had 36.0%, the centre-right 31.7% and the far right 27.9%. The second round put the centre-right in the lead, 40.2% to the centre-left’s 32.1%, with the far right barely changed on 27.1%. But if you add back the 4% or so that the centre-left sacrificed by withdrawing two lists and disendorsing a third, the change between rounds looks much less pronounced.
There’s also the phenomenon, noted last year in municipal elections, of tactical voting by National Front supporters. In the Paris region, Ile-de-France, the first round numbers looked like this:
That looked as if it should come out as a reasonably comfortable win to the centre-left in three-party-preferred terms. But instead the National Front vote dropped by 4.4% in the second round, and the centre-right rose to 43.8%, 1.6% ahead of the centre-left. Clearly there were a number of far right voters who realised their party couldn’t possibly win and decided to switch to the centre-right.
Whichever way you look at it, France now has a three-party system, with all the messy dynamics and opportunity for tactical voting that that entails. It’s going to make 2017 a very interesting presidential election.
* Incidentally, I’d be grateful if anyone could explain the strange habit many commentators (or editors) have of referring to the National Front in English-language stories as the “Front National”. Yes, I know that that’s its name in French, and if you’re determined to introduce local color you could write it that way in italics, to show that it’s a French term (as, for example, my friend Alan Austin does at Independent Australia), but it makes no sense at all to just bring it in unitalicised in a context where no-one would dream of writing “Party Socialist” (or even “Parti Socialiste”).