France keeps out the extremists

The television news on France 2 on Monday reported it as “Triumph of the Incumbents”, and that’s a good summary of Sunday’s French regional elections. (See my earlier report here.) Every one of the twelve sitting regional governments in mainland France (13 counting Corsica) was returned, and all by substantial margins. The political balance, which on occasion in the past has shifted dramatically, this time remains unchanged at seven centre-right to five centre-left (plus regionalists in Corsica).

Only in the overseas possessions was there any change: Reunion, narrowly won by the centre-right in 2015, swung equally narrowly to the centre-left, and a combined left ticket beat the incumbent centrists in French Guiana. Martinique switched from one regionalist ticket to another.

None of the other incumbents were troubled. Brittany, where the centre-left was returned with 29.8%, not quite eight points ahead of the centre-right, is the only one that even looks close, and that’s largely an illusion: five tickets contested the runoff, including a separate Greens list with 20.2%. No doubt its voters would have rallied to the centre-left if they had thought it was in any danger of losing.

The far-right National Rally again failed to win a region; its candidates went backwards everywhere, with its national vote falling from 27.1% to 19.1%. In the one region it had high hopes for, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA), it dropped 2.5% to 42.7%, being comfortably beaten by the combined centre-right and centre ticket of incumbent premier Renaud Muselier – the Greens/centre-left ticket, which had 16.9% in the first round, withdrew to support him.

Proportional representation, however, means that the far right at least has a seat at the table. It will retain some members in all of the mainland regional parliaments, and its voice, for good or ill, will be heard as part of the national conversation. Polls still show its leader, Marine Le Pen, at or near the head of the pack for the first round of next year’s presidential election.

To see the effect of electoral systems, you need to look at the departmental elections, held on the same day. The departments don’t have very many powers these days, so their elections attract less attention, but there too there was not much change: five of the 95 departments switched from left or centre-left to centre-right, while another three went the other way.

The National Rally, however, was nowhere near winning a department. The departments along the Mediterranean coast, its main centre of strength, tell the story. In Bouches-du-Rhône it won 30.8% of the vote but only two of the 58 seats. In Var it was 36.1% and two seats out of 44; in Hérault 28.3% and four seats out of 50. And in Alpes-Maritimes, Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales it won 32.2%, 27.1% and 33.7% respectively, but won no seats at all.

The difference, of course, is that whereas each region votes as a single electorate, the departments vote by districts (called cantons) – one wants to say “single-member districts”, but candidates are actually elected in pairs (binômes), one male and one female. All but the top two pairs are eliminated for the second round, allowing voters for all the mainstream parties to rally against the extremists.*

So despite winning around a fifth of the vote overall, the far right will have only a handful of seats in a few departmental councils. The far left is also marginalised, but rather less so, both because it has more concentrated pockets of support and because it can do deals with the centre-left – whereas the centre-right still steers well clear of the National Rally.

I confess to having no great desire to see a large contingent of far-right departmental councillors elected in France, or the equivalent elsewhere. But this is one case where the cure is worse than the disease. Artificially locking out a party that has significant popular support just feeds its narrative of victimisation and contributes to a general disaffection with democracy.

While the system hurts the extremes, it doesn’t help the centre much either. Republic on the Move, the party of president Emmanuel Macron, also got eliminated in the first round in most places. Yet Macron remains favorite for re-election; Sunday’s voting showed that centre-right and centre-left retain their dominant position among the electorate, but they have an uphill task for next year.

On the left, that’s because of their disunity. If Greens, Socialists and far left, including their various splinter groups, were to combine their vote they would be easily on a par with Macron and Le Pen. But there’s no sign of that happening.

The centre-right’s prospects for unity are rather better. It has three strong potential candidates in Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez, all of whom were re-elected at the head of their regions. While there are significant differences between them, it seems likely that they would all rally behind whoever gets the nod as the Republicans’ candidate.

Their problem, however, is that the polls show them a long way from being able to break into next year’s runoff; their presidential vote is way behind what they’re getting at local level. It seems that as long as Macron is in the running, a lot of centre-right voters will back him rather than risk having the presidency fought out between the left and the far right.

* Technically a third pair of candidates can stay in for the runoff if their vote amounts to more than one-eighth of the district’s total enrolment, but with turnout down around 33% that is practically impossible.

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