France votes, regionally

France went to the polls last Sunday, and will do so again this Sunday, in the two rounds of its regional elections – approximately the equivalent of Australian state elections, but all held simultaneously across the country. There are twelve regions in mainland France, plus the island of Corsica, plus five overseas departments.

The regions, however, are a good deal less powerful than our states, and attract correspondingly less public interest. (There are also departmental elections being held at the same time, on a different voting system.) To say that France is a whole is voting is a little misleading, since turnout in the first round only reached 33.3%, down by a third from its already uninspiring 2015 level. It will rise in the second round, but probably not by much: last time it got to 58.4%.

No doubt Covid-19 is partly responsible; the elections have already been postponed once (from March) for health reasons. But there’s also clearly a sense among the electorate that with the presidential election only ten months away, everything else is a bit of a sideshow. Regional leaders have not fired their imagination.

You can read my preview of the 2015 regionals for an explanation of the voting system. Unlike the presidential election, the second round is not confined to just the top two candidates: any ticket that won more than 10% of the first-round vote can stay in for the runoff. But they don’t have to; if they can reach agreement with another ticket, they can pool their candidates in a single list. Tickets that scored between 5% and 10% in the first round are eliminated, but they too have the ability to be added to another list.

This adds complexity to what is already a fragmented party system. In 2015 things were much simpler: in all but one of the twelve mainland regions, the same three basic groups reached the 10% mark – centre-left, centre/centre-right and far right.* All stayed in, except in two regions (Hauts-de-France and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) where the centre-left unilaterally withdrew and threw its support to the centre-right in order to prevent a victory for the far right.

Since then, however, the rise of Emmanuel Macron has disrupted the political landscape. His party, Republic on the Move (LRM), was contesting its first regional elections; it did poorly, winning (with centrist allies) just 10.5% of the nationwide vote and falling short of the 10% mark in three regions. Its most determined opponent, the far-right National Rally (formerly National Front), also had a disappointing first round, with a total of 18.7% (down from 27.7% in 2015), although it cleared 10% across the board. (Official results are here; only minimal French required.)

So like last time, most or all of the regions will be won by centre-right or centre-left. But while the centre-right is looking reasonably coherent, the centre-left has never recovered from the battering it received in the 2017 presidential election. In most regions its vote was split between Socialist Party and Greens lists; usually the main far-left ticket, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unsubmissive France (LFI), ran separately, but in some regions far left ran jointly with Greens or Socialists – or, as in Hauts-de-France, both.

The result of all this is that whereas in 2015 there were at most only three tickets competing in the second round, on Sunday there will be six regions with four, and two (Brittany and New Aquitaine) with an extraordinary five contenders: separate Greens and Socialists, plus centre-right, LRM and far right. The voters – at least those of them who bother to turn up – are going to have to impose some of the coherence that the parties have failed to deliver.

For Macron, it is something of a mixed bag. Although his own base is not strong, he will still be in a reasonable position for next year if his rivals remain disunited. His biggest threat is that centre-left or centre-right will corral enough voters behind them to push him into third (or even fourth) place, securing themselves a place in the presidential runoff either against the far right’s Marine Le Pen or against each other.

On the centre-left that still looks like a big ask. But the centre-right, with a strong potential candidate in Xavier Bertrand, who heads their ticket in Hauts-de-France, is starting to loom as more of a threat. Sunday’s results will give us some indication of how serious that is.

* The exception was Occitanie (as it’s now called), where the Greens/far left ticket managed 10.3%; it merged with the centre-left for the runoff.

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