Municipal Elections in France from the Perspective of an American Observer

This is an essay on the municipal elections in France, not on the COVID-19 hysteria that has taken over our thoughts and deeds for the uncertain future.  My focus is on the similarities and differences between municipal elections in France and in the US. I draw on my personal experiences with municipal elections in the US and my personal observations of the municipal campaigns in the town of Grasse.  While there are many paths to a political career,  and many levels of civic activism, whether in the US or France, the politics at the municipal level highlights the significance of the adage “All politics is local”.

In the US, municipal elections happen in many different timeframes depending on state and local laws, whereas in France they happen at the same time everywhere, in every one of the almost 37,000 communities that have their own respective municipal councils. Once every six years, it happens – this nation-wide endeavor to elect the most localized of governments, the municipalities or cantons, as the French call them.

The cycle for 2020 included the usual springtime schedule of a first round of voting in early March (actually 15 March this year) and a second round a week later (on 22 March). Having the opportunity to monitor this country-wide but localized phenomenon is something that I had been looking forward to ever since we had settled into our retirement villa and lifestyle in Grasse, France some few years ago. As someone who had been active in American politics over the years, including at the municipal level, this was a real opportunity to appreciate the operation of democracy in a different setting, right here in Grasse. And the exercise was indeed fun while it lasted.

The Impact of the Pandemic on French Municipal Elections

The first phases of the monitoring exercise went rather well, but one cannot ignore the fact that the process was dramatically disrupted by COVID-19.  During the course of the winter weeks of campaigning, the alarm bells of a spreading epidemic had grown rapidly louder. It thus came as no surprise when President Emmanuel Macron took to the airwaves on 12 March – and then again on 16 March – to announce steps to slow it down and to mobilize resources where the outbreaks were most severe. And yet, in the midst of all of this, he opted to proceed with holding the first round of the nation-wide municipal elections.

The social distancing strategies announced by President Emmanuel Macron on the Thursday (12 March) before the first round of these municipal elections (15 March) put a real damper on things.  For one, the turnout for this first round ended up being well below past elections as people stayed away from the polls even when special measures had been taken to protect voters and polling officials. And for another, the President followed up with another address to the nation on 16 March that included the postponement of the second round of these same municipal elections, from the following Sunday of 22 March to an uncertain date in June, which left all further campaigning in an uncertain state. This second round was eventually held on 28 June.

The good news for our chosen community of Grasse, however, is that the popular Mayor Jerôme Viaud was re-elected, rather unusually for these French municipal elections, in the first round. We weren’t there in person, but we followed the Facebook page of “The Friends of Jerome Viaud”, which posted a photo of a celebratory Mayor Viaud being congratulated by his long-time mentor Senator Jean-Pierre Leleux and a small number of his other supporters. We know that there had been plans for a more formal celebration, perhaps in April, but once the lockdown kept on being extended every couple of weeks, this idea was evidently dropped. Even on the occasion of the official swearing in of the council in June there were no public gatherings, just the council members in masks and seated well apart to carry out the formalities.  So the monitoring opportunities were curtailed by the pandemic, but here are some impressions of the process up to the point of the pandemic.

Similarities and Differences US and France

Once again, these municipal elections happen every six years in France – a rather long term in comparison to the local elections, typically every two or four years at the most, that we are familiar with in the United States. And it is unusual, from an American perspective, that ALL of these municipal elections are held at the same time – for almost all of the more than 36,000 municipalities (actually known as “communes” in France).  It goes to show how very centralized French democracy is, in spite of the adage that “all politics is local”.

Jurisdictionally, this centralization is reflected in some obvious differences (e.g. how public school systems are governed, different approaches to church/state relations), but local governments everywhere do tend otherwise to have very similar agendas (land use planning, local transportation and roads, sports and cultural activities, registration of vital statistics). In these issue areas of common jurisdiction, there are, to be sure, different circumstances and different ways of handling the issues  (racial equity versus migrant integration, zoning of land uses, or how to regulate or even ban services like uber or airBnb). I take a closer look at some of these issues in the course of this commentary, but there are a couple of underlying governance patterns that really caught my attention as an observer of the municipal elections in Grasse.

First, I was struck by the unique nature of coalition-building that I witnessed in the Grasse elections (and read about in many of the other nearby French municipalities).  As described below, it has significant governance implications skewed in favor of the dominant party. Secondly, though, one can also appreciate the debates that do occur on the many typically municipal issues that were raised during the campaign.  But thirdly, I was struck by what I would describe as the political dichotomy between the local and national power structures in France. In all three respectss, what I observed is significantly different from what I know and have experienced at the local level in the US. Obviously, one could argue that the US is far more diverse and autonomous in local governance structures because of its size and the nature of its federal structure of governance, but there are overriding patterns that justify making some generalizations on these three points.

Lists as a Unique Form of Coalition-building

Because municipal councils in France are organized around representative “lists”, each mayoral candidate is at the head of a full list of possible council members. For Grasse, this meant a relatively long list of 45 members. All eligible voters in the municipality get to vote for their preferred list but can’t split up their vote among the various lists. I found this to be a significant difference between my experiences in the US and what I saw in France. Being on a list means that council members have to be part of a loyal but diverse and representative coalition supporting a particular mayoral candidate, whereas in the US where many municipal councils are non-partisan, the mayor runs independently of the other council candidates. Each candidate is on his or her own.

We had the opportunity to witness the official announcement by the Viaud campaign of his 45-member list at a very loud and raucous rally.  This was, indeed, a special and significant campaign event. The auditorium where it was held had filled to capacity long before the scheduled time of the event.  Some long minutes after this scheduled time, the loudspeakers suddenly filled the room with ear-splitting rock music as the charismatic mayor himself appeared in the crowded and multi-tiered auditorium from back center left. In the midst of thunderous applause and continuing loud music, he paused at each step down the aisle to greet his cheering supporters just like a typical American politician in the spotlight. The only difference seemed to be that each greeting entailed the typical left and right “bisous” (kissing each other on the cheek) rather than the hearty hug-and-handshake of the American politician.  (Although coronavirus fears had already arisen, the crowd – and the politician – seemed unaware of the need for any social distancing!)

Once he made it to the podium on the elevated stage where a big screen displayed the latest panoramic photo of Grasse, he stood with arms raised to the continuing applause before he settled into delivering his inspirational campaign speech. It included, as usual, warm greetings to every conceivable dignitary in the audience, references to his main campaign messages and lots of reaffirmation of his love for Grasse. He then concluded with the introduction of each and every one of the 45 candidates on his list. Each one was applauded as they bounded down the steps from that same back center left staging area. We noticed that there were a number of them who received particularly heightened applause. In the course of the introductions, it became quite clear that the list had both locational balance from all parts of the city as well as a representative array of professional backgrounds – and perfect gender balance, too (50-50, of course).  One could see how important this list was for Mayor Viaud.

How the lists work in an election

As previously mentioned, municipal elections in France are scheduled for two rounds. In 2020, these rounds were scheduled for 15 March (the “ides” of March) and 22 March. If one list ends up with an absolute majority on the first round, that basically ends the election process for that particular locality. The winning list gets half of the council seats plus a proportion of the other half based on the actual vote count among all of the lists garnering at least 15% of the vote.  This pretty much guarantees a super-majority for the winning candidate.

If there is no absolute majority for one of the lists in the first round, then there is a second round. Any “list” with a certain threshold of the vote in the first round is on the ballot for the second round. (In Paris, for example, where no list got a majority in the first round, this meant that there were four lists in the second round – one headed by the current mayor Anne Hidalgo. But more on that later.) And the list with the relative majority gets the half plus a proportional share of the rest. Again, this does result in skewing in favor of the most winning list. Technically, the full council then elects the mayor, but this system basically guarantees that the mayor will be the person at the head of the winning list, even where it does not get an absolute majority of the votes in either the first or the second rounds.

Because Mayor Viaud and his list won an absolute majority in the first round (some 52% of the vote), there will be no second round in Grasse. From his list of 45, then, his share turns out to be 36 of the seats. I guess that means that the bottom 9 people on his list are out of luck. But the 36-seat majority does mean that his proposals can’t easily be challenged.

The effect of electoral list distributions on municipal councils

That is certainly what we saw in recent council meetings under the 2014-2020 membership – the majority was a good 31 out of the 45, a bit lower than the 36 for the incoming council membership. What we also noticed at these council meetings is that many members of the majority also operated as “cabinet members” with official jobs in the municipal administration, albeit part-time ones for the most part. This is definitely in striking contrast to municipal councils in the US, where members are individually elected and therefore far more independent of each other, even where they might have partisan affiliations that bring them together. And they don’t serve as deputies of the mayor!

In Grasse, meanwhile, the remaining 9 seats on the new council have been distributed to four of the six other competing lists (each getting 4, 2, 2 and 1 seat(s) respectively, according to their respective shares of the vote).  Although all six competing candidates for mayor had to offer complete lists (i.e. 45 individuals for the Grasse council), only the top individuals on four of these remaining lists will actually be seated in the council. And, oh my goodness, these are, for starters, the mayoral candidates themselves!  That is to say, there are four other mayoral candidates on the Grasse council – candidates for mayor who LOST to Jerome Viaud!

Imagine a council with both Trump and Hillary as members, to say nothing of having Bernie, or any of those Republican senators who ran against Trump on the same council. Of course, this French situation is all at the local level, but you get the point. This kind of municipal council membership that you find in the Grasse council is simply not common to the US. In fact, we understand that Mayor Viaud and his supporters were very worried about the apparent competition for votes from these various mayoral candidates with their various lists, coming as they did from all directions – right and left, extreme right and left – and even “extreme” center, it would seem.

It was, indeed, quite a campaign, with lots of glossy campaign literature and rallies and the like. Well, not like the US. There were no billboards or media ads. And only one public debate. (The only public billboards were for the day of the election itself, with all candidates – six of them in Grasse – having their same-sized posters on display all in a row, close to but not right at each and every polling place.) But still, quite a major effort.

Implications for Grasse

Mayor Viaud himself is part of the right-of-center Republican base in Grasse, which is also dominant throughout much of the Riviera. But Mr. Viaud had faced a similar cluster of mayoral candidates in 2014, on his first run for mayor. At the time, he was the protegé and designated successor of the local Republican mantel of Jean-Pierre Leleux, a long-standing mayor of Grasse who had chosen to concentrate his continuing political career as a senator at the national level. Many of the 2020 challengers criticized Viaud’s close association with Senator Leleux, but that was only an undercurrent of discontent.

These challengers also had strong views on many of the local issues, such as the further extension of a major highway spur off the main autoroute or the provision of safe water or the building of this or that edifice to revitalize the old town, including a monstrous new media center of contemporary design surrounded by crumbling ancient structures inhabited by descendants of North African or Arab immigrants. At least four of these losing mayoral candidates will certainly continue to nip at the heels of the Mayor even if he will control an overwhelming majority of council members.

Priority Issues

I had attended past municipal and regional council meetings, as well as local rallies and mayoral candidate debates to catch the flavor of the issues and governance processes in the community.  In addition to my interest in comparing the processes of American with French governance, I was also interested in comparing the issue priorities in each setting. I had started into this learning experience in search of signs of inspiration for making Grasse as strong a tourist attraction as places like St. Paul de Vence or Cannes or Nice, but also for signs of reaching out to engage the very isolated Franco-Arab population in the area.

Neither of these concerns was at the forefront of this local campaign – although there was one candidate in the public debate who was a raving anti-Islamic racist. (Fortunately, the full-to-capacity audience attending the debate was quick to express their disapproval of his rantings, and he eventually dropped out of the race.) There were, of course, other code words in other campaign speeches about strengthening security in the community and renovating the center of town, but even here the concerns seemed to be how to make it a better place for everyone – without specifically identifying any particular group.

The other issues I was interested in tracking included roads and the related concern about traffic management, on the one hand, including their environmental implications, and diversification of the sectoral specialization of the perfume and flower-related industries that are unique to  Grasse, on the other.  In our current state of retirement, we no longer need to worry about commuter traffic, but we are certainly aware of the fact that we overlook the main road out of this area to where the jobs are (Cannes, Valbonne, Sopia Antipolis) that is backed up as early as 7 am each weekday morning. And the connection to the main highway from this inland area to the coast is still several kilometers away. It seems that no party wants to commit to the extra money required to fix this problem, but we do see that new parking lots are being built for “covoiturage” at least. As for the sectoral developments, we note that Grasse is at the center of an agglomeration of communes oriented to stimulating agricultural developments while also attracting new educational services for skills developments related to the perfume industry.

We think that Mayor Viaud has the vision, depth and charisma to serve the town/commune well. We noted his sensitivity to the many localized issues that constituents brought up during the campaign – clean water, roads, security, public services – but also his over-riding theme of strengthening the appeal of the center of this very historic commune of Grasse while also nurturing a sense of pride throughout the various parts of this rather diverse town.  It would seem that a very substantial new and contemporary looking media center in the middle of the historic district is a major priority – still under construction.

Oddly enough, when one looks back at the Mayor’s campaign platform from 2014, there is a whole lot more emphasis on strengthening the touristic appeal of Grasse as a center of art and history. And we know, of course, that his mentor Senator Leleux was instrumental in the successful French effort at UNESCO to have Grasse designated as a heritage site for its perfume industry.  He might not have featured this in his 2020 campaign speeches, but his glitzy campaign literature does include references to reviving the center of Grasse, while making it a welcome place for everyone and to building the “savoir-faire” tied to perfume for the future of the region as a whole. So we are confident that the voters chose well for their future – and for the welfare of Grasse.

The Macron Dilemma

One has to conclude this lengthy “snippet” on French municipal elections with a note about the national/local dichotomy. It is remarkable that Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election in France in 2017 without a solid institutional base – just a “movement” called “En Marche”  – to challenge the established but floundering political parties of the left and right. President Macron was able to transform this movement into a political party of sorts – the LREM – which won in a landslide for an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. And it held its own in the European Parliamentary elections of May 2019, with only the extreme right National Front operating as a serious challenge. Then why are the local elections so different?

Here one sees the prevalence of the old-style parties of both left and right, and no effective penetration of the LREM to this level. Well, it has had a few notable promises of successes so far, but the LREM even lost in one of its strongholds of Lyon. Its only major win was in northern France, where the former LREM Prime Minister Eduard Philippe was elected mayor.  Paris, it should be noted,  was expected to be a stronghold for the LREM, but the voters re-elected its Socialist mayor. The LREM candidate came in a poor fourth!

In this part of France, the Cote d’Azur, there are strong local party leaders in the Republican ranks and lots of challengers from the extreme right. A few Socialist pockets nearby (and in Marseille) but no LREM to speak of. I find this very interesting. I know that the power structure in Nice was the setting for a sort of Republican/LREM struggle leading up to the municipal elections, but the LREM challenge clearly fizzled. There was no sign of LREM alignments in Grasse, where the many different challengers were simply repeats of the past alignments, even going back several decades.

It may be premature to conclude anything about the LREM and Macron’s future at this time, but it does seem that more will have to be done for a realignment of local politics if he and his party will have any chance of staying in power at the national level. Of course, that is still a couple of years away. And the uncertainty of the political future has been greatly affected by the uncertainty of the social and economic future in the midst of this global pandemic. And, more recently, the undercurrent of right-wing populism and its anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant platform has apparently pushed the Macron strategy to the right.

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