Democracy in Jeopardy: French Regional Elections

What follows here is my first commentary on electoral politics in France. It will be part of an ongoing series of commentaries to explore a number of specific settings – I have chosen France, India and the US – where democracy might be seen to be in jeopardy.  I started this series with a general commentary on democracy in jeopardy (available here), and I will be linking the specific case studies to this overall perspective from time to time.  Although I am an American who is a voter there but not in either France or India, I write these commentaries as an interested observer who has studied and written about electoral politics academically.

The country of “liberté, egalité et fraternité”, France, is a country of contradictions. Years ago, a typical textbook on French politics would most likely align with the widely held view that Its governance is highly centralized, but there are scholars today who argue quite the opposite – that French politics has become increasingly localized (and maybe always had a decentralized tinge to it). In any case, its governance does seem to have a rather messy mix of vertical and horizontal characteristics that are epitomized by the regional and departmental elections that are being held across this country in this month of June.

It is this mix that has led me to follow more closely these rather odd elections where the looming national confrontation between populism and centralism in the forthcoming French presidential elections of next year is such a dominant influence. And this interplay between national and local politics seems to be especially the case in the regional and departmental elections right where I am a resident – i.e. in the town of Grasse, which is located in the department of Alpes-Maritimes and the region of Provence-Alpes-Côtes-d’Azur PACA),This part of France, which has been, at least in recent years, an enclave of conservatives, is dramatically experiencing an electoral challenge from the extreme right that is splitting the conservative coalition apart. In fact the leading figure on the extreme right is someone who “converted” from a conservative party (Les Républicains or LR) to the Front National – or Rassemblement National (RN) as it has chosen to call itself more recently.  So we are looking at the very real possibility of this right-wing RN ticket winning control of the PACA Regional Council – a first in all of France  for this extreme right party. There is also another region in France to the north (Hauts de France) that is almost as vulnerable as this one, but it is also the case that the RN tickets in numerous regional and departmental elections across France are doing better than ever before.  Hence, I am motivated to put my impressions down about the challenges to democracy from the populist nationalists like this RN group.

Last year, I followed the municipal elections in France – all of them, for more than 36,000 communes in the country, were all held at the same time! I was especially interested in the municipal elections of the town where I reside, the town – or commune, if you will – of Grasse. And it was a precursor to the regional and departmental elections this year – also all of which are being held across the country at the same time. What I found so fascinating was the odd mix of central control (all municipal elections at the same time and under the same nationally prescribed rules) with local autonomy (political alignments that were very locally entrenched and indifferent to the centralizing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche” or more precisely, its transformation into a rather rootless national political party, the LREM (La République en Marche).

I might add here that it was informative to me that France has more municipal governments than the United States. A lot of the history of governance reform since the 1960s and repeated in the 1980s and again in the 2010s has consisted of the failure by the French to make local government more manageable – i.e. more consolidated. It is a very messy patchwork, dating back to the turmoil of the French Revolution and its aftermath. But here we are, after a traumatic year and a half of pandemic lockdowns and alarming populist trends, with yet another round of nationally coordinated local elections in France – this time for a combination of departmental and regional councils.

Here, the numbers are more manageable, to be sure. There are 101 departments (5 overseas and 96 in mainland France – well, 95 plus Corsica), and 18 regional councils (again 5 overseas and 13 in mainland France). But there is still that strange mixture of centralized control (all regional councils at the same time and under the same rules) and highly localized politics. Given the fact that the regions are more like American states, geographically at least, I am finding it interesting to compare the regional council elections in France to the state-wide elections in the US: More specifically, I am interested in the regional council elections for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA), where I currently reside, and the state-wide elections in the state of Virginia, where I formerly lived and where I am still a registered voter. But, given the significant difference in regional council elections being held all at once, in contrast to the federal system in the US where every state has its own election laws, I have been following more than the PACA region in France. Virginia, on the other hand, is the only state with contested elections at the state level this year.

The French regional council elections, furthermore, are occurring at the same time as the 101 departmental council elections! To repeat this point, ALL of those departmental council elections, throughout France and its overseas territories, are also being held at the same time – AND in full coordination with all the regional council elections.  I am repeating the point here because I think it is so very different from the highly decentralized and uncoordinated system of state and local elections in the US.

It is also striking that the departmental and regional council elections do have a different format for candidates than in the US – a mandated pairing by gender. Departmental councils are required to be made up of pairs of representatives from each district (a combination of smaller communes or parts of larger communes), one male and one female. In this area, for example, Grasse has two distinct districts for the departmental council – Grasse 1 and Grasse 2. Voters are invited to choose among the pairs of candidates as presented by each political party or coalition in the district where they live. This is more like the American practice of voting for the candidate rather than the party, even if the candidacies are all paired, because each set of candidates is connected to a specific electoral district.

On the other hand, the voting for the regional council is for the whole list.  The PACA Regional Council has 235 members. So although the consolidated lists for each political party do seem to be broken down by departments (six of them in the PACA region) and are gender-balanced, voters’ choices are for one list of 235 candidates, identified by political party and by the head of that party’s list. So here in my local area (known as Grasse 1), there four different sets of paired candidates for the departmental council and nine different party lists for the regional council – without listing all the names other than the name at the head of each list for the regional council.  (In fact, it is rather difficult to find the complete lists. I did manage to find the complete list of the LR party online here.)

So here we are, less than a few days from the first round of elections, set for Sunday, 20 June, with the second round set for Sunday, 27 June.  Official campaigning has been limited to six weeks, although media coverage has been more extensive. Scattered throughout the community, there are duly authorized posters all in a row, numbered according to a random assignment of the lists on the ballot. There are nine posters for the regional council candidates, featuring the head of each list; and there are a separate set of four posters in Grasse 1 (and seven posters in Grasse 2). Elsewhere in the community, one sees the posters featuring one or another of the regional council “heads”, some with two or three other dignitaries of significant popular appeal perhaps and certainly with a gender balance – but not the whole list.

For the Grasse 1 departmental council, I personally recognize and know one of the male candidates, none other than the Mayor of Grasse, Jerome Viaud; whereas I have also met one of the female candidates in the Grasse 2 district, Valérie Copin, who happens to be the “Premiere Adjointe” to Mayor Viaud, that is to say, the second in standing to the mayor – or, perhaps in American terminology, the Vice Mayor? Anyway, both are affiliated with the right-wing network of political parties (LR for short).  And their candidacies do tell us that departmental councils are typically made up of people with strong municipal connections. In fact, Mayor Viaud is running for re-election to the departmental council, although his paired counterpart Michele Olivier does not seem to hold any other elective office. One can presume, though, that this pair will be the winning pair in Grasse 1. (And in fact, the LR cluster holds some 50 of the outgoing department council seats. So it doesn’t look like there is much competition anywhere in the area.)

The regional councils’ lists reflect the overlapping nature of multiple elective positions among the candidates even more strikingly.  Perhaps this is an essential part of winning. If one focuses here on the LR list for the PACA Council, which is the party holding the majority in the outgoing council, the head of the regional list is the outgoing President of the Regional Council, a fellow from the Marseille area known as Renaud Muselier (who is himself a former Deputy Mayor of Marseille as well as a former delegate in the National Assembly).  It is not clear what other positions he currently holds besides being president of the regional council, but it is interesting that the official launch of the list in mid-May specifically mentioned that over half of its list is made up of mayors or other locally elected officials.

Nonetheless, the list that was put together by this same right-wing LR network for the PACA regional council encountered considerable criticism from the ranks of right-wing politicians for not having any parliamentarians on the list. It seems that this is a common practice – and several of the other lists in other regions do have very prominent national politicians on their lists – most obviously the lists that were being put together for Macron’s LREM but also on other lists as well. This did not happen in the PACA region.

The PACA right-wingers, it seems, got into quite a mess back in May when the French Prime Minister Jean Castex (i.e. the henchman for President Macron) negotiated with this Mr. Muselier to coalesce the LR with the LREM for a combined LR/LREM list!  It seems that the Macron people were aware from the polling numbers that an LREM list in the region would do very poorly (in fourth place or worse) – and that the extreme right RN group was actually polling in first place. No RN list has ever won a regional council majority, and here it was that the PACA region was heading to a possible LePen-related win – just a year before the Presidential elections in France (where Macron is expected to face off against Marine Le Pen). Prime Minister Castex evidently even proposed to incorporate an LREM member of the Macron cabinet, Sophie Cluzel on a joint list with the LR and Mr. Muselier.  Well, the LR leadership in the region objected vehemently to this supposed betrayal of their right-wing veritas.

The focus of the media publicity on this possible alignment of the center with the right was on a number of politicians in Nice, where the internal division in the LR has been the most dramatic. The mayor there, where Mayor Christian Estrosi is standing by his support for Muselier, and where his former sponsor and the former mayor of Nice Eric Ciotti (now sitting in the National Assembly) condemned the move. The local party committee in Nice sided with Mr. Ciotti and condemned both Mr. Muselier and Mr. Estrosi.  However, it does seem that the public discord was patched up when Mr. Muselier agreed not to include Sophie Cluzel on the list – or any other cabinet member or parliamentarian. But the result of that is that this LR/LREM list does have 15 LREM members (out of 235) on it but no member of parliament, something which the LR members who aren’t with Macron but still expected to be on the regional list were not happy about.

Meanwhile, the RN list for the PACA Regional Council, headed by a former LR politician (and cabinet member under President Nicolas Sarkozy) named Thierry Mariani, has been leading in the polls. This is so even with the supposed coalition between the LR and LREM. It is shocking to see what this RN group is promoting – anti-immigration, anti-Islamism, favoring support for Christians in the Orient, and complaining about insecurity on trains and schools. The LR/LREM platform, in contrast, emphasizes accomplishments and plans for the region in education, transport and economic development. And, to ameliorate the LR diehards, Mr. Muselier has officially promised to support the LR candidate for president in 2022 and not Emmanuel Macron.

One additional comment in anticipation of further reflections after the first round of these regional and departmental elections this coming Sunday, 20 June. There are, of course, nine regional lists, not just the two. While the conservatives do seem to be very divided between the Sarkozy types and the more centrist types, the left of center parties have been in a real shambles. There’s even a strong Communist faction on the left, both nationally and in some pockets here in the PACA region, but the main divisions seem to be between the environmentalists and the socialists. Among these groups, the strongest does seem to be an environmentalist party the EELV that is very anti-LR but will probably come in third in this first round. The question will be what this group decides to do, either stay in for the second round (a week later on 27 June) because it will meet the threshold to stay in, or throw its support to the LR/LREM group in order to stop the RN group.  Enough for now. More commentaries on this and other elections in the coming weeks!

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