Democracy in Jeopardy: French Regional and Departmental Elections

What follows here is my first commentary on electoral politics in France for this series on “Democracy in Jeopardy”. It is part of an ongoing series of commentaries to explore a number of specific settings – I have chosen France, India and the US.  I write these commentaries from my personal perspective as someone who has lived in all three countries but also as an interested observer who has studied and written about electoral politics academically. All three have long been identified as strong democracies that are all, nonetheless, being confronted with particularly serious challenges today.  I started this series with a general commentary on democracy in jeopardy (available here), and I will be linking these specific case studies to this overall perspective from time to time. 

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 are, to be sure, RN tickets in almost all of the regional and departmental elections across the country, including at least one other region (Hauts de France in the north) that is almost as vulnerable as this one,. But the forecast is especially alarming for the PACA region, which happens to be the region where I live.  Hence, I am motivated to put my impressions down about this particular challenge to democracy that seems to be so similar to the kind of right-wing populist nationalism that is challenging democratic societies around the world.

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.  (Note: I realize that the two sets of elections had not always been on the same day in the past, but they have regularly been directly tied, one to the other, whether in a sequential format or a fully integrated format.)

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, these are duly authorized posters all in a row, numbered according to a random assignment of the lists on the ballot – and in duly authorized locations. 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) for the departmental candidates. 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. But no yard signs!

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 center/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 is new and 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 (out of 54) 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 center/right LR network for the PACA regional council encountered considerable criticism from the ranks of right-wing politicians for not having any parliamentarians or other national-level officials on the list. It seems that this is a common practice, at least in other regions. Several of the other lists in other regions do have very prominent national politicians on their lists – most notably the lists that were being put together for Macron’s LREM but also on other lists as well. But 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 of 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 majority in any of the previous regional council elections, and here it was that the PACA region was heading to a possible first-ever win for the LePen-supported list – 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, much of the LR leadership in the region objected vehemently to this supposed betrayal of their right-wing veritas.

The media publicity on this possible alignment of the LREM with the center/right LR, zeroed in on the city of Nice, where the internal division in the LR has been the most dramatic. The mayor there, Mayor Christian Estrosi, is standing by his support for Muselier, whereas 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 LREM-affiliated cabinet member or parliamentarian. But the result of that is that this LR/LREM list, with only 15 LREM members (out of 235) has ended up with no member of parliament. One can imagine that that the LR parliamentary members from this region, including Mr. Ciotti, are not happy about this.

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 actually been leading in the polls. (Remember, there are nine lists, and this means that the RN list is ahead of the others for the first round of voting but still likely to require a second round.) This is so even with the supposed coalescence of two voting blocs, the LR bloc with LREM) that should have put that list in the front but didn’t.  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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