Why French regional elections don’t really matter

Front national leader Marine Le Pen (left) and niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (right) hope to win in both France's north and south on Dec. 13.
Front national leader Marine Le Pen (left) and niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (right) hope to win in both France’s north and south on Dec. 13.

In France’s previous two regional elections, in 2004 and 2010, the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) easily won nearly all of the country’s 22 regions.France Flag Icon

That was typical for France’s regional elections, which typically tilt against the party in power nationally, and the Socialists were very much out of power in both years. In the most recent March 2010 elections, the Socialists (together with its allies) won fully 21 of the 22 regions in metropolitan France. Alsace, on France’s border with Germany, supporting then-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right instead.

What a difference five years can make.

Today, the Socialists are in power, though president François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls have some of the lowest approval ratings in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. Despite a solidarity bump in support following last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, that did not carry over into support for the Socialists in Sunday’s regional elections. Instead, the far-right, anti-immigration Front national (FN, National Front) of Marine Le Pen emerged with the largest share of the vote, leading in six of France’s 13 metropolitan regions after the first round on December 6.

The far-right Front National leads in six regions after last Sunday's first-round voting. (AFP)
The far-right Front National leads in six regions after last Sunday’s first-round voting. (AFP)

When minor parties are eliminated for the second round on December 13, however, it’s entirely possible that the Socialists and  Sarkozy’s rechristened Gaullist center-right Les Républicains will split so much of the vote that the Front national wins control of one or more regions in the country. The far-right’s success is historically significant, because it’s by far the most support that either Le Pen (or her father, the former Front leader) has won in a national French election.

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RELATED: Marine Le Pen is still a longshot to win
France’s presidency in 2017

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Marine Le Pen has gradually tried to detoxify her party’s anti-Semitic roots (in part by banishing Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder and her own father from the party earlier this year). With doubts about the European Union’s economic and security leadership and a French populace that’s lived through two jihadist attacks since January, Le Pen’s ‘fortress France’ approach to politics has brought it into the French political mainstream. In additional to the Front‘s traditional supporters, Marine Le Pen has made some inroads with young voters, who are suffering from massive unemployment as a group, and from disillusioned leftists in France’s industrial northeast, who are angry with Hollande’s failure to improve the French economy.

While last Sunday marked a very impressive performance for France’s far right, it’s hardly a sign that Le Pen’s Front is necessarily in position to win the 2017 presidential election — or even that the Front is now a permanent third force in French politics. For at least three reasons, it’s worth taking a deep breath before drawing any broader conclusions from the result of the first-round results. The Front may lead in six regions for now, but it certainly will not wind up controlling six regional councils, and there’s a chance that it may fail to win power in even a single region after next Sunday’s second-round voting.

The left is much stronger than it looks from the first-round vote 

First, the nature of France’s two-round elections underestimates the appeal of both the center-left and the center-right. Nominally, the Front won the greatest share of the vote nationally (27.73%), besting both the Républicains and their allies (26.65%) and the Socialists and their allies (23.12%). But those numbers do not tell the full story, as several groups in the center-left and center-right contested the regional elections under their own banner. For example, various green parties, in aggregate, won 6.63%, and the hard-left and communist parties, in aggregate, won 4.04%. In the second round, many of those votes are expected to revert to the Socialists. Nonetheless, it could well be Hollande’s united left that wins the most support next Sunday, not the far right. Debout la France (France Arise), the party of eurosceptic conservative gadfly Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, won 3.81%, and many of his supporters may now support Sarkozy’s party.

By way of example, the Front nominally won around 30.5% in the Centre-Val de Loire region, with just 26.3% for the center-right and 24.3% for the center-left. In the second round, the Socialists are likely to pick up more than 11% from various leftists and green parties. Accordingly, it would not be at all surprising if the Socialists retained control of this region, despite its ‘disappointing’ third-place finish in the first round.

If anything, the results are a greater setback for Sarkozy and the Républicains. Everyone expected that the Socialists, deeply unpopular under Hollande, would fare poorly. Sarkozy, however, has high hopes of a political comeback, and his return to the national fray united a center-right that had collapsed into infighting between its conservative and moderate wings. Sarkozy’s Républicains topped only four regions, and they pushed the Front to third place convincingly only in Île-de-France, the central region that includes Paris. Though they won 30.5% there last Sunday, the Socialists won 25.2%, and the second round will be a tough fight. A similar dynamic could also boost the center-left over Sarkozy in Normandie and the Pays de la Loire regions.

Sarkozy is still not a lock for the center-right’s 2017 presidential nomination, given the surprising emergence of former foreign minister Alain Juppé as a plausible alternative. Moreover, Sarkozy still faces several legal battles stemming from his first term, and the lingering distaste for Sarkozy’s personality, ostentatious personal life and the underwhelming results of his presidency could still thwart his ambitions. Falling behind the Front in the first round of regional elections (and possibly behind the Socialists in the second round) shows just how unpopular Sarkozy remains.

Mainstream forces will still, in part, coalesce to stop the Front

Secondly, there’s at least some evidence that France’s mainstream forces will still willing to work together to keep the Front out of power. Though Sarkozy ruled out the possibility of withdrawing his party from any second-round votes or even merging candidate lists in some regions to form a united front against Le Pen, the Socialists unilaterally withdrew from two regions where the Front had a legitimate chance of winning power in a three-way race.

In the first region, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, Marine Le Pen herself is leading the Front, and it won 40.6% to just 25.0% for the center-right and 18.1% for the center-left. The region, de-industrializing and peripheral, is home to Calais, where so many migrants and refugees have set up camp in hopes of crossing the English Channel. It’s also where Le Pen’s talk of boosting state resources to improve economic outcomes and scorn for the eurozone and EU governance, more generally, has won over so many formerly Socialist voters.

In the second region, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Le Pen’s 25-year-old niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is leading the Front, taking 40.6% on Sunday to just 26.5% for the center-right and 16.6% for the center-left. Maréchal-Le Pen, who remains in close touch with her grandfather, waged a much more traditional Front campaign, emphasizing the anti-immigration themes to which southern voters have been most receptive and social values in a region that’s heavily Catholic and culturally conservative. Maréchal-Le Pen, for example, has taken a far harder line against LGBT rights than her aunt.

The Socialists are still, for now, contesting other regions. That still means that even if they manage to unite against both Le Pen family members, it may not be enough to shut out the Front, entirely. In Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, a super-region spanning eastern France, Florian Philippot, the 34-year old party vice president, a top Le Pen advisor and a sitting MEP, seems set to win a three-way contest on Sunday.

Regional powers are weak

Finally, it’s important to understand just how little power comes from controlling regional governments. Since François Mitterand first devolved power to regional governments in the mid-1980s, regional councils have not exactly become power centers, with government still highly centralized in Paris. Regional councils can levy taxes and are chiefly responsible for the local primary school system, though they have certain powers over public transportation and other infrastructure matters beyond education. Their powers pale in comparison to those enjoyed at the state level in the United States or Germany or even to the devolution granting autonomy to Scotland and Wales within the United Kingdom.

A 2014 procedural reform that reduced the 22 regions in metropolitan France into 13 ‘super regions,’ seems set to do little to change that. After years of talk by Sarkozy and his predecessors, Hollande actually got around to reorganizing France’s regions. Though the move was expected to save €15 billion, many regions were not delighted to be squished together.

Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who led the campaign for the Socialists in the leftist heartland of Bretagne, led both the center-right and the Front by a double-digit margin, and the Socialists will easily retain control of the regional council after the second round. That’s in part because Le Drian fought so hard to maintain Breton borders in the regional government reorganization last year (even adding to the region some of the area that was formerly considered part of the Loire and always considered part of ‘greater Bretagne’).

The weakness of regional councils, however, makes regional elections a great opportunity to lodge a protest vote, just like the European parliamentary elections, which Marine Le Pen and the Front also won most recently in May 2014. While French voters are willing to cast ballots to send a message to Strasbourg or to elect the hard-right to minor regional councils, that doesn’t mean Le Pen is a lock for the French presidency in 18 months’ time.

Moreover, both parties — like the mainstream parties across northern Europe — have taken a harder line on immigration and terrorism. Sarkozy, in his successful 2007 election, co-opted the Front‘s hard-line language on law and order matters, while Hollande’s response to the November Paris attacks has been far more militant than anyone would have expected even weeks ago. By taking tougher positions on immigration and security, the political mainstream has legitimized the Front, as much as it has sidelined the Front. But it has also forced the Front to shift to messages like economic populism, with Le Pen embracing outlandish calls for France to leave the European Union altogether and finding common cause with the illiberal Russian president Vladimir Putin.

It’s also worth noting that though the Socialists dominated the 2004 regional elections, that meant little in 2007, when Sarkozy soundly defeated Socialist presidential challenger Ségolène Royal. Moreover, every conceivable factor will be working against the Front as the presidential vote approaches. Even if Le Pen makes it into a second-round runoff against one of the two mainstream parties, it is difficult to foresee her winning an absolute majority in a one-on-one showdown with any of the plausible contenders, no matter if it’s Sarkozy, Hollande, Valls or Juppé. It’s even more difficult to imagine the Front sweeping dual-round parliamentary elections that would give Le Pen the power to enact laws.

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