Emmanuel Macron at the ceremonies of November 11, 2017. Emmanuel Macron at the ceremonies of November 11, 2017 at the Clemenceau statue. Photo: © Rémi Jouan, CC-BY-SA, GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons

The triumph of traditional parties of the left and right, together with record levels of abstention, offers little cheer for either projected ‘frontrunner’ in next year’s presidential poll, argues Susan Ram

Neither President Emmanuel Macron nor Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist Rassemblement National, can be deriving much satisfaction from the results of the second round of France’s regional elections, held on June 27. 

Traditionally regarded as some kind of mid-term poll, this year’s electoral battle at the regional level has thrown key elements of France’s current political reality into sharp relief. 

Firstly, there’s the record level of abstention: 65.7 per cent for the second round, hard on the heels of the dismal percentage of 66.74 recorded for the first round, held a week earlier on June 20. While in recent years regional elections have never exactly brought out the punters (in 2015, 50.9 percent of voters failed to participate in the second round) this year’s tally marks a new and shocking low.  

Secondly, traditional parties of the left and right have been able to make a come-back of sorts. Of the twelve regions that make up mainland France, seven are now controlled by Les Républicains (LR), the Gallic incarnation of the mainstream right. Five others remain under the rule of the Parti Socialiste (PS), one-time citadel of the centre-left, whether alone or in alliance with other parties. 

In the 2017 presidential elections, both these old-school parties were backfooted by Macron’s assertive, media-hyped bid to storm the centre and reboot the nation via a new political entity, La République en Marche (LREM). Four years on, neither the stripling formation nor its brash, widely reviled initiator have much grounds for celebration. If nothing else, the regional elections have revealed the strength and staying power of their old adversaries, shored up by durable organisational networks, reliable funding and well-oiled election machines. 

Dismal results for the LREM and the RN

The resurgence (if that term is appropriate for an election boycotted by so many) of traditional parties of the left and right, captured by graphs, is mirrored by the poor showing of both Macron’s LREM and the fascist right. 

Despite its multiple ruling power advantages, including an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly (the lower house of the French parliament), the LREM has proved incapable of gaining control of a single region. Its calamitous second round vote share of just 6.7 per cent (that too in alliance with another party) underscores Macron’s failure to convert his four years in power at the national level into anything resembling solid grassroots support. 

As for Le Pen’s RN, its 19.8 per cent of the national vote in the second round of the regionals fell far short both of its own projections and of the entrails-reading of the French commentariat. When set against the 27.1 per cent scored by the party (then known as the Front National) in the 2015 regional elections, this outcome is little short of devastating.

In the run-up to the regional elections, speculation was rife that in the first round the RN would top the polls in no fewer than six regions. In the event, it finished first – by a nose – in only one: the prosperous southeastern mega-region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA). Facilitated by the complex system of list-making and proportional representation that characterises regional and departmental elections in France (more on this below), the incumbent regional head, Renaud Muselier of the LR, was able to muscle and manipulate his way to victory in the second round, winning 54.9 per cent of the poll against the 45.1 per cent scored by Thierry Mariani, his RN opponent. 

Regional elections: wider significance?

How significant are these results for an understanding of political currents in France as the country prepares for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections in 2022? 

These were the first regional and departmental (county) elections to be held following a major redrawing of France’s administrative map back in 2016. Under what was a pet project of the then president, François Hollande, the number of French regions was cut drastically from 22 to 13 (the thirteenth being Corsica) in the name of efficiency and ‘rationalisation’. 

The resulting ‘super regions’ command sizeable budgets and, while lacking legislative autonomy, possess discretionary spending powers in such fields as education, public transport, urban planning, economic development and tourism. They are therefore not without influence over people’s lives, despite the heavily centralised nature of the French state. By that token, it should matter who has political control over them. 

Arcane voting system

When regional elections take place, the presidencies of each region are at stake, along with the composition of regional assemblies. Elections are held according to an arcane system of proportional representation lists, which must be sex balanced: parties are required to field, alternatively, a male candidate and a female candidate from the top to the bottom of their list. 

Voting takes place across two rounds. If no party gets at least 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, a second round, open to any party/list which has crossed the 10 per cent threshold in round one, must take place. Adding a further layer of complexity is the ‘bonus’ of extra assembly seats awarded to the leading list.  Lewis Carroll would have been in his sardonic element here.

Small wonder, then, that French voters seem increasingly reluctant to engage in what for many seems an elaborate charade. Our elderly French neighbours, while feeling duty-bound to go out and vote, described to us the byzantine quality of the experience, with its multiplicity of lists and confusing array of paperwork. There seemed little connection with their own concerns, among them shrinking pensions and a rural health system under growing strain. 

Abstention: France’s most prominent political trend?

The historically low turn-out for this year’s regional elections should be seen as part of a growing voter revolt, extending through every layer of the electoral system to the national level. Back in 2017, when reviewing the results of that year’s presidential and legislative elections, I noted that,  

“After four exhausting rounds of voting since the first stage of the presidential poll back in April, France now finds itself governed by a president voted in by just 16 percent of the electorate, his dominion reinforced by an overwhelming parliamentary majority gained from elections in which nearly 6 out of 10 voters did not participate.” 

The factors motivating this growing tide of non-engagement have long intrigued pundits, pollsters and political leaders fretting over their inability to pull out the vote. In a recent poll conducted by Ipsos/Sopra Steria, published on June 27 in the wake of the second round of the regional elections, the largest category – 27 per cent of the sample – comprised those who said they had abstained in order to register their discontent with politicians in general. Next came those (23 per cent) who reported being unattracted by any list or candidate. A further 20 per cent of the sample described being ‘not of a mind’ to vote. 

The comprehensive failure of the RN – the self-declared harbinger of ‘change’ — to buck this trend is emerging as one of the principal lessons from this year’s regional polls. 

Why did the RN perform so poorly?

The downsizing of the RN from the status of an insurgent contestant primed for victory across a sweep of regions to that of an also-ran, in many cases incapable of improving on its first-round performance, will no doubt head the agenda at the party’s 17th annual congress, due to open on 3 July at Perpignan. Rumours suggest that the knives may be out for Marine Le Pen, whose occupation of the party presidency since 2011 has been characterised by a strategy of ‘normalisation’ or ‘detoxification’: efforts to refresh the party’s image by expunging its history and glossing over its intrinsic extreme right character. 

Prior to both rounds of the regional elections, Le Pen delivered emotional speeches imploring would-be RN voters to get out and vote. All to no avail. 

In the Hauts-de-France region, comprising the swathe of north-eastern France where the party has until recently been making ominous headway, the RN candidate could muster a second round vote share of just 25 per cent. This was less than half the total notched up by his LR opponent – the ambitious Xavier Bertrand, currently being tipped as a likely presidential candidate for the LR in 2022. 

In ÎIe de France, the region covering greater Paris area, came even greater humiliation: the second round trouncing of the RN’s youthful, viciously Islamophobic candidate, Jordan Bardella. This was a candidate who managed to see his percentage vote go down: from 13.14 in the first round to just 11.8 in the second. A key factor was the ability of three formations of the left (La France Insoumise-Parti Communiste; the Parti Socialiste; and Europe Écologie-Les Verts) to unite around a single candidate, Julien Bayou of the EELV, for the second round. On this basis Bayou was able to take second place with 33 per cent of the vote, against 46.2 per cent for the LR incumbent, Valérie Pécresse.

While Le Pen has been seeking to attribute the RN’s poor results to ‘disastrous and erratic’ government management of the elections, others in her party have different ideas. One view is that she has allowed ‘normalisation’ to go too far and has made too many concessions in order to lure voters away from the mainstream right.  

Already under pressure for her lacklustre performance in the run-off against Macron in 2017, Le Pen now confronts the risk of being outflanked on the right. The challenger is Éric Zemmour, a writer and self-styled ‘polemicist’ whose racist, Islamophobic and misogynist views have encouraged his installation as a semi-permanent fixture on French TV and the wider media. Zemmour, who is currently hinting at a run for the presidency next year, has accused Le Pen of a ‘loss of nerve’, singling out her decision to drop the RN’s one-time commitment to withdraw France from the Eurozone, the European Union and the Schengen accords. 

To an unexpected degree, France’s latest round of regional elections has lifted the lid on the uncertainty and unpredictability of current French politics in a context of profound and growing voter alienation. As campaigning builds towards next year’s presidential and parliamentary polls, nothing seems written in stone, least of all victory for the fascist far right. Things are in flux. For the French left, there is everything to play for.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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