Democracy in Jeopardy: French Regional and Departmental Elections, Round Two

In this series of reflections on “Democracy in Jeopardy”, I have chosen to focus initially on a number of “sub-national” elections in 2021, in part because there are several of them happening in 2021 that have attracted my personal interest – in France, India and the US. The series starts with an introduction (available here) to the  concerns that I share with so many others on the growing threats to democracy, even in countries with a strong democratic heritage like these three.  The French case study is the first of the three case studies in the series, and this is the second essay on the French 2021 elections. Other case studies will follow on the US and India.  This analysis will eventually link up with essays on what is happening in these countries and on democratic trends generally, but here the focus is on France.

In the first essay for my French case study (available here), I highlighted the perceived threat of growing popular support in France for the extreme right in the forthcoming regional and departmental elections that were held in June 2021. The extremist party, the Front National had renamed itself the Rassemblement National (RN) ((the National Rally). Although it was still dominated by Marine Le Pen, the RN was seeking to expand its solid base of support and had even recruited disgruntled politicians from the center/right Republicans to strengthen its appeal. In this second essay,  I look at the significance of what actually happened in these June elections. The results were less alarming in terms of any extremist takeover but nonetheless very worrisome in terms of some more fundamental concerns –  the record low voter-turnout and the overall dissatisfaction with the political system itself that was reflected in the polling of non-voters.

Media attention and major French pollsters had been predicting significant expansion of support for this newly renamed National Rally. They even projected that the region known as Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur (PACA) could be the first breakthrough region for an outright election victory for the RN.  After all, the party had successfully recruited a star ex-Republican who was popular in the region and had served in the Sarkozy administration, Thierry Moriani, to lead the RN ticket in that region. Given that I happen to reside in this PACA region, I had a personal interest in this particular regional election. Nonetheless, it wasn’t only in this region that the RN’s apparent electoral strength was growing.

As noted in the first essay, the French held these elections for the two sub-national levels of governance (regional and departmental) together and at the same time throughout the whole country.  And, as is the French practice, these joint elections were carried out in two rounds – the first, on Sunday, 20 June 2021 and the second, on Sunday, 27 June. The French system of governance has traditionally been described as very centralized, and the fact that these sub-national elections were (and always are) coordinated nation-wide is an example of this centrality. In fact, French municipal elections, which were held the year before (2020), again all at the same time, reinforces this point. (I happened to have written an essay about those 2020 municipal elections, too, (available here), but that was before the subsequent events of 2020 and early 2021 triggered such widespread concern for the future of democracy as a major concern in its own right. In any case, it will be useful to look back on this essay as a “prequel”, as it were, to this series.)

The Results of the First Round on 13 June 2021

Meanwhile, and as already noted above, the alarming prospect of gains for the extreme right was the main preoccupation leading up to these regional and departmental elections. As it turned out, this alarmism proved to be somewhat over-rated.  True, In the first round, as had been the case in the previous regional elections in 2014, the Le Pen candidates were front-runners in several regions, including this PACA region, and clearly in second place everywhere else. But the French pattern of having lots of tickets, from extreme left to to extreme right and everything in between rarely produces a winning ticket (i.e. a majority of the votes) in the first round. In the PACA region, as I reported in my first essay about these regional elections, there were nine of these slates to choose from.

Similar numbers were common in all of the regions, where all of the voters from the center right to the extreme left seemed to prefer voting, as usual, for their preferred list in the first round, as a sort of “positioning” for the second round. Unlike the rest of that spectrum, the RN has had a rather solid base of support but not by itself a winning base. So the positioning of the RN as the front-runner but not the winner in the first round was in itself no big surprise or cause for alarm.

What did surprise everyone was that the margins favoring the RN tickets were far narrower than predicted. Instead of the 41% or more for the RN ticket in PACA that had been projected by pollsters, for example, the Mariani (RN) slate garnered only 36% of the vote. Similarly lower numbers for the RN tickets were evident in all the regions. And, upon closer scrutiny of the turnout, the main explanation for this surprisingly low proportion for the RN candidates was a record low voter turnout! . The national “abstention” rate, as the French call it, was 67.7% of the eligible voters in this first round. Since all French citizens over the 18 are automatically listed as registered voters, this meant that over two-thirds of eligible voters chose not to vote!

In a sense, the week-long interim between the first and second rounds was less worrisome than it had been expected to be. But there were still some worries, especially in the PACA region. Elsewhere, the RN ticket was unlikely to come out on top in the second round, but here in PACA there were some complications. The pundits may have been wrong about both the margins and the abstention rates, but there was still the matter of who among the other remaining candidates remained viable and what they would opt to do. Technically, the rules are that any candidate (or slate) that garners at least 10% of the vote in the first round  is eligible to stay in the second round. Of course, most of these tickets are unlikely to come out on top in the second round , but they could conceivably win at least a few seats on their respective regional councils. Or they could negotiate to merge their tickets with, say, the ticket with the second highest vote. Or they could opt to drop out and encourage their voters to vote one way or the other among the remaining candidates/tickets.

The PACA region’s first round results showed three tickets that had at least 10% of the vote – the RN with its 36% and the Republican/LREM ticket at 33% and a center/left (Divers Gauche) coalition ticket with 17%. It will be recalled that the Republican/LREM ticket was led by the Republican incumbent Renaud Muselier who had agreed to include the floundering LREM (President Macron’s nascent party) in a merged list. This in itself had caused a lot of controversy among the more conservative Republicans in the region, who believed that the ticket would have done much better without the LREM. But there it was, a bit stronger than pollsters had predicted but still behind the RN.

The head of the third, Jean-Laurent Félizia, was from the Green Party, but his ticket was an unusually unified left-leaning coalition that had done surprisingly well in this first round. He was, therefore, inclined to stay in the race, even if it meant letting the RN slate come out on top. The system, readers may recall, is stacked to give majority control with an automatic 25% extra share of seats to whichever ticket comes out on top, either with at least 50% plus one in the first round or with as little as 33% in the second round as long as it’s the top vote getter.  In that context, negotiating a merger with the Republican/LREM slate was a gamble for the Felizia ticket, but it also proved to be out of the question for ideological reasons. Not only were the left of center parties skittish about their own coalition ticket, but they certainly did not want to risk being affiliated with President Macron, even if the LREM candidates on the Muselier ticket were a small minority of the list.

The earlier polling that had incorrectly predicted a 41% vote for the Mariani/RN ticket in the first round had also shown that a two-way race in the second round between Mariani and Muselier would lead to Mariani winning with 51% and Muselier losing with 49%. But the Mariani margin had not reached the 41% mark in the first round, and thus there was hope that a runoff between the two could give Muselier the winning percentage. But if the Félizia ticket stayed in to make it a three-way runoff, the forecast had been 44% for Mariani and only 36% for Muselier.

Again, these numbers were probably overestimating the Mariani margin. But it did look as though the only way Muselier could prevail over Mariani was for the Felizia ticket to drop out. Although Mr. Filizia himself protested, he was ultimately pressured by the national leadership of the Green and Socialist Parties to back off and drop out. No merger with the Muselier ticket and no mixing up of voters in a three-way race. The prospects for a regional council with an RN majority and president did not sit well with these national politicians, even if it meant having no one but RN council members in the opposition.  And thus, the second round was a two-way race between Mariani and Muselier.

Second Round REsults

Fortunately for PACA, the Muselier ticket won with a solid 57 %, thanks to the withdrawal of the Felizia ticket, while the Mariani ticket picked up a few points to increase its share to 44% of the vote. (One has to speculate that the remaining voters deposited “white” (empty) ballots.) The fact that it was the only RN ticket in the country that included the LREM means that it does set the stage for interesting dynamics in the PACA region for the next round of elections in 2022. It is an overwhelmingly pro-Republican region, but one can see frictions within Republican ranks both over alignments with President Macron and appeals from the extreme right.  We’ll take this up in a future commentary.

As it turned out, in the second round, the “abstention rate” was only one point lower nation-wide than it had been in the first round – at 66% versus 66.7%. That is to say, voters were not significantly motivated to come out in larger numbers by whatever results they saw in the first round. In a sense, this was a good thing, since the expectations were that the Le Pen types were the most motivated to get out the vote. But it also meant a continuing wringing of the hands over the evident indifference of French voters. The pandemic certainly was a factor, but such lower numbers have stimulated a lot of debate about the future of democracy in a country which has gone through turbulent times in the past and which has had a pronounced rightward shift in the political environment.

While the main interest in the French regional elections was about the extremist threat, especially as it was played out in the PACA region, the election results across France merit some attention here for their relevance to the more important issue of voter turnout. It is perhaps not surprising that this record low turnout meant that there was no turnover in the leadership of any of the 12 regional councils in mainland France. (There are, by the way, four “overseas” regions that are relatively small plus Corsica is its own region – all of which have very localized power structures that don’t spill over into the politics of the mainland.  So I have not included them in this essay.) Seven of these 12 regional councils had been in Republican hands, and five in Socialist hands. And all of them stayed the same.

Implications for the Future of Democracy in France

What is significant is that the political base of both the left-of-center Socialists and right-of-center Republicans appears to be hanging together at this level but with signs of disarray at the national level. Pollsters were embarrassed by their pre-election forecasting about the RN numbers, but they were even more embarrassed, it seems, to have missed the deeply negative feelings among the record numbers of non-voters who didn’t think they could make any difference. That would suggest that neither the Socialists nor the Republicans are well regarded, but the Macron image of uniting around the center in a new political base is also proving to be dismissed. So in spite of the relief that the extreme right didn’t find a way to build on this malaise, it is still there.

President Macron’s LREM failed miserably to pull people toward the center from either the right or the left. It was already evident last year that the party had no grass-roots from which to build a base for any of the municipal elections. Where they did win, as in Le Havre, it was because the Macron ally simply returned, in this case the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, to his hometown where he had been mayor as a Republican. The LREM even lost a key ally in Lyons. And it seems that there was no improvement at organizing a new centrist party for the regional elections. What will it take? Where the LREM did put up a regional slate, it typically came in fourth or fifth in the first round!

There are, of course, signs of accommodation – more on the center/right side than on the center/left side. In PACA, for example, it is the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, who officially withdrew from the Republican Party and embraced a movement called “La France Audacieuse” in 2020 while still reassociating with Muselier (and not as an LREM party member) and the Republicans to be re-elected to head the Alpes-Maritimes Departmental Council . Meanwhile, two prominent PACA Republicans, the former mayor of Nice Eric Ciotti, and the current mayor of Cannes and new president of the national mayors’ association, David Lisnard, have both been publicly critical of Muselier’s strategy to bring the LREM into his ticket – even after he won!

At the national level, of course, the left-of-center parties have fallen apart and don’t seem to be ready to pull themselves back together. The Socialist Party, the main party of the left in France, has even won two Presidential elections (Mitterand in 1990 and Hollande in 2012) in the Fifth Republic, but the Socialists did poorly in 2017 and don’t seem to be doing any better in anticipation of 2022. The Republicans also fell apart in 2017, and it will be interesting to see if Xavier Bertrand, who won handily as the regional governor (president of the regional council) in the Hauts de France region will pull that party together. Current predictions, of course, are for Macron to run, even in the absence of a grass-roots political structure, and for Marine Le Pen to be the main challenger. But we shall see.

A Word on the Departmental  Elections

Meanwhile, I wrap up this 2021 saga with some observations about the departmental elections. Historically, the departments date from the French Revolution. Although efforts to abolish them have not succeeded, they really do seem to be an extra layer of local governance that could be replaced by the regional councils at one level and by agglomeration of municipalities at another more local level. But there they are.

Interestingly, the newly elected President of the Alpes-Maritime Department is none other than Christian Estrosi, the Mayor of Nice and proud associate of La France Audacieuse. Other than that, however, it is a council that seems to be made up entirely of Republicans from 26 of the 27 cantons in the department. Only one of those cantons sent a different pair of candidates (remembering from earlier that these elections are “paired” (i.e. gender-balanced) by canton.

I was personally interested in two “cantons”, as the dual-member districts for departmental council positions are called – the cantons of Grasse 1 and Grasse 2. It was no surprise that the canton of Grasse 1, where I happen to live at the western edge of Grasse, handily elected Jerome Viaud, who happens to be the mayor of Grasse, paired with a woman, Michelle Olivier, who is clearly the junior partner to the pair.  But it was Grasse 2, that includes the eastern parts of Grasse plus the village of Mouans-Sartoux, that has regularly been sending a “green” slate or pair.  In the 2021 second round, this EELV pair featured Marie-Louise Gourdon, the woman of this particular pair, along with someone who was repeatedly identified as the “newcomer”, Mathieu Panciatici . And he succeeded a widely known environmentalist voice, who opted not to run again in this election. These are the only non-Republican members of the Alpes-Maritime Departmental Council!

I do want to mention one other cantonal result here because of its unusual political history. There was one canton (Comtes by name) in this department that had actually been sending Communists to the Departmental Council  – the “last stronghold”, as it were, for the Communists in this region – somewhere east of Nice. One might note here that there has been a legally operational communist party with considerable regional strength over the years. One might recall that even Picasso, who had joined the Communist Party some time in the 1940s, had been drawn to work with some artists with pottery-designing skills to live in the town of Vallauris in part because the town had elected a Communist mayor.

Since then, the Communist strength has dwindled but still around. We even became acquainted with the father of one of our son’s childhood friends in the neighborhood  – a man who was quite comfortable in informing us he was a Communist.  And the Communist Party (PCF) is still part of the national political scene. But the Republicans actually pulled off a surprise upset in that canton in the second round and narrowly defeated the incumbent Communists.  It was close, but the victory for the Republicans does mean that the only opposition voices at the departmental level come from the environmentalists in Mouan-Sartoux, also known as Grasse 2.


In conclusion, this PACA region is emphatically center-right territory today, albeit with a strong extreme right wedge. There have been odd characters here and there in the region with rightist leadings that are even more extreme than the RN, but the looming figure from the extreme right is a television personality and news commentator Eric Zemmour.

In our immediate neighborhood, a small community that is officially part of the town of Grasse but has its own historic identity is very noticeable because we drive past a billboard that is at the entrance to this enclave. The billboard is almost always plastered with posters associated with the extreme right – for the Mariani ticket leading up to the June 2021 regional elections. But shortly after the June elections, they were replaced by a changing flow of Le Pen or Zemmour posters – and even, from time to time posters from the extreme left. This tells me that the extreme right flows easily into the extreme left Mélanchon). It also tells me that the core supporters of this populist extremism are quite outspoken but internally divided.  But this sets us up for the next election cycle – and the next commentary on French democracy.

The regional and departmental elections attracted my attention because of the evident momentum of the extreme right in France, at a time when we were all grappling with self-examination and doubt about the reliability of democracies like the US and France and India. The outcome of this round raised other worrisome trends about entrenched interests and declining popular trust in public officials, but it at least kept the extreme right at bay.  Will this hold in 2022? And what more fundamental issues are we having to consider about the strength of democracy, whether here in France or elsewhere? The fact that there is more to the challenge than extremist manipulations is an important lesson for this work in progress.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply