An interrupted election in France

There were no major national elections scheduled around this time anyway, so Covid-19 hasn’t yet had the chance to be very disruptive. The next big one is South Korea’s legislative election on 15 April; so far it is still going ahead, with additional precautions.

But France had local elections scheduled, and since France has an enormous number of units of local government, or communes (about 35,000 of them), that’s a very big deal. The elections were to be held over two rounds, last Saturday Sunday and next Saturday Sunday.

The first round went ahead, but a lot of voters stayed home: turnout was only 44.7%, down almost a third from last time. The government quickly announced that the second round would be postponed until June, and has provided for that in its emergency legislation to deal with the coronavirus. But this poses some interesting problems.

No-one seems to dispute that the postponement is a good idea. Some have argued that the first round should be scrapped entirely, or alternatively should be kept only for those communes where no second round was required – which means the large majority in number, but not most of the cities where the bulk of the population lives.

But the prevailing view seems to be that the first round results should stand. Instead, the government and the opposition are arguing about when lists of candidates for the second round should have to be finalised.

At this point it’s necessary to understand something about the voting system. For a full explanation see my preview of the 2014 elections, but the key point is that a ticket just needs a plurality of the vote to win control of a local council. To help get to that, it is allowed to form alliances to merge its list of candidates with those from unsuccessful tickets: those that either were eliminated for falling below 10% in the first round, or reached 10% but withdrew to avoid splitting the vote.

So the system provides fertile ground for deal-making. Rival left or right tickets can unite to maximise their strength; mainstream tickets can unite against extremists; centrists can co-operate with either centre-right or centre-left; and so on. But in a normal election, with only a week between rounds, these decisions have to be made in two days so that the new ballot papers can be printed.

Now that two days could stretch to two months or more. The opposition isn’t happy about that and has called for the deadline to be brought forward. But the centrist party of president Emmanuel Macron, Republic on the Move (LRM), evidently feels that it has the most to gain from an extended period of inter-party bargaining.

Certainly it needs something. Although results are somewhat confused, there’s a consensus that the centrists have done poorly in the first round. But because LRM was only founded three years ago, comparisons are difficult. (Official results are here. If you can navigate a bit in French, Le Monde’s coverage is very good.)

The 2014 elections were a triumph for the centre-right and, to a lesser extent, the far right. They were a key stage in the decline of the centre-left that ended with its catastrophic defeat in the presidential election of 2017, when the official Socialist candidate finished a distant fifth.

To get some comparative numbers, I looked at just the largest communes, those with populations over 150,000.* Here are the totals:

  2014 2020
Far left 7.1% 3.1%
Centre-left 31.0% 34.2%
Green 4.5% 11.8%
Centre 1.5% 11.1%
Centre-right 39.4% 29.3%
Far right 13.0% 7.0%
Others 3.6% 3.5%

The first three rows shouldn’t be taken very seriously on their own, since different left and centre-left forces unite and disunite in varying combinations. But the aggregate gain for the left of about 6.5% is substantial, and within that the gain in importance for the Greens is no doubt real.

The “centre” total from last time is also artificially low, since centrist candidates often stood on centre-right or (less commonly) centre-left tickets. Nonetheless, Macron has clearly established the centre as a significant independent force. The bad news is that it is well behind its rivals on both left and right.

The other thing that’s clear is the decline of the far right. Perhaps its elderly voters stayed away more from the polls for health reasons, but it certainly deflates the bubble that the far right was riding a year ago over the “yellow shirt” protests.

Macron has not had an easy time of late, with a drawn-out battle over pension reform that is still far from resolved. But the threat that opposition to him would edge over into an attempt to overthrow liberal democracy itself has definitely waned. As long as his chief opponents are in the mainstream, and he remains positioned between them, his prospects for re-election in 2022 are reasonably good.

The health crisis gives him an opportunity to show leadership and rally the country behind him. Round two of the local elections, whenever it ends up happening, will be a good test of how well he does that.


* But ignoring the big three (Paris, Lyon and Marseille), which have a ward system that makes it more difficult to extract the figures. That leaves 16: Toulouse, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Lille, Rennes, Reims, Le Havre, Saint-Étienne, Toulon, Grenoble, Dijon, Nîmes and Angers.


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