Regional elections, the fifth in a history which only began in 1986, took place in France on March 14th and 21st of this year. What are these elections? Regions have existed since 1972 but only began to have elected assemblies in 1986. They were a level inserted between the central state on one hand, the departments, created from 1790 on, and very numerous municipalities on the other hand. To put this in order, there are 22 regions in France (apart from the overseas territories), which makes an average of a little more than 4 departments per region. It should be noted that the competencies and especially the financial means of regions remain modest when we compare them for example with similar structures in states organised on a federal basis, even if the successive laws on decentralisation adopted since the 1980s in France have gradually increased their importance. But in France, especially with Nicolas Sarkozy, local democracy always gets short shrift.
The election is based on a list system, proportional, with two rounds. Only lists having gotten more than 10 % of the votes cast in the first round can run for the second round. They can then merge with any list having obtained at least 5 % of the votes. This process allowed, as a general rule, most lists of the left to merge (Socialist Party, and the Left Front comprising the Communist Party and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Party of the Left, together with smaller groups), and Europe Ecology, which is a grouping of ecologists wider than the Green Party). In 12 regions out of 22, the National Front was able to maintain its list, which led to “triangular ballots” (left, right and extreme-right). On the other hand, all the lists of Olivier Besancenot’s NPA or other groups of the radical left were eliminated. The lists of the Modem (the centrist party of François Bayrou) met with the same fate, with one single exception.
This second big defeat of the Modem (after the 2009 European election) has clarified, at least for a while, one of the main issues within French (left-wing) politics: what kind of coalition should be sought in the future, one including Bayrou’s party or not? Ségolène Royal and other leaders of the Socialist party have in the past expressed the wish for such a broad coalition. That seems now to be out of the question. On the other hand, Europe Ecology (and especially its representatives coming from civil society), surfing on its unexpected good results in the latest European and regional elections, are inclined to look for new forms, “overcoming the traditional political parties”. On March 22 (a wink at March 22, 1968), Daniel Cohn-Bendit launched an appeal to found a “political cooperative able to produce sense and to pass on political sense and strategic decisions”. However, without any hesitation Europe Ecology in fact opted for its traditional left alliance for the second round (with one exception: in Brittany they could not, after the first round, get the slots they thought they were entitled to on the joint list and decided to run on their own, obtaining 17% of the votes instead of 12% in the first round).
Attempts of the radical left to present common candidates failed once more, as they did for the 2009 European elections and the 2007 Presidential, although polls showed that they could expect more than 15% of the votes. The main reason was the NPA’s refusal to join for the second round coalitions with the Socialist Party (unless this party was prepared to endorse a clearly anti-liberal programme !). NPA’s possible partners, especially the Communist Party, did not accept such a solution, considering it impossible to campaign while excluding any future participation in the Regional Executives. Behind the scene, there was of course also the question of the means (symbolic, financial, human) provided by such participation. The actual outcome was diverse, the local boards of the parties making the final decisions: for the first round and in most regions, two and sometimes three radical left lists were in competition (i.e. NPA; Lutte ouvrière, the party formerly represented by Arlette Laguiller; the Left Front together with some smaller groups); in a few of them, the communists joined the socialist list from this early stage, the rest of the Left Front running together with other radical groups; in two cases only (in the Montpellier and Limoges regions) the NPA and the Left Front ran together for the first round, getting 8.6% in the first case and over 13% in the second (thus the only region where the radical left could run on its own for the second round)
Two major phenomena in the electoral results were generally highlighted: the tremendous victory of the left and the very high rate of abstention. A third feature was less often commented, but its importance is nevertheless considerable: the “comeback” of the extreme right.
For months, all the polls were predicting it – to the point that Martine Aubry, the first secretary of the Socialist Party, could even set a particularly ambitious objective: the grand slam, i.e. winning in all the regions. It should be noted that in 2004 this was almost the case: only Alsace and Corsica remained governed by the right. Today, only Alsace has a right-wing majority. And this time the “triangular ballots” are not the reason: with two exceptions, the total of the votes for the left was indeed higher than right and extreme-right votes together. In the second round, the total of the votes for the left amounted to more than 52% (35% for the right, a little less than 10 % for the National Front).
Does this mean that France is at a turning-point, after fifteen years of right-wing presidents? One would have to be cautious about such an assertion for at least two reasons. The first is the fact that the left won the 2004 regional elections in a comparable way, and this did not prevent Nicolas Sarkozy from winning the presidential election in 2007. This lends credence to a thesis often put forward in France, according to which the French people would rely on the left to manage municipalities and regions, but not the state. The second reason is the very widely admitted fact that this vote was more a vote against the right, and more precisely against Nicolas Sarkozy, than a vote for the left. This is confirmed by various polls indicating that two-thirds of the French people have a bad opinion of the current right-wing government, but that the same proportion does not believe that the left would do better.
This being said, the shock was still severe for the right. Its leading figures hesitated for a long time before recognising the defeat. But, today, there are strong tensions. Some of its elected representatives no longer hesitate openly to consider Nicolas Sarkozy’s responsibility for the defeat. Others are breaking rank, in particular the former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, in anticipation of the 2012 presidential election, for which perhaps many of his political friends no longer think Nicolas Sarkozy would be the best candidate. This can partially be explained by the fear of not being re-elected. The logic of the French electoral system, with the presidential election some weeks before the legislative one, almost certainly indicates that a defeat of the right (or, the case being, of the left) in the first one is followed by a defeat in the second. It remains to be seen to what extent the current excitement is a long-lasting phenomenon or just a manipulation to persuade people that something will change. As far as current policies are concerned, the president of the Republic and the Prime Minister have already promised “to pursue the reforms”, which in the rhetoric of the right means continuing the liberal policies, the very same policies which the voters have in fact just rejected.
For the left, unity has paid. There was a noteworthy exception, which might prompt rethinking in the future: in the Limoges region, the common radical left list mentioned above got 19 % of the votes (against 48 % for the socialist list and 33 % for the right). It is thus the only region where the NPA has elected representatives. In the other regions, one can suppose that the voters saw the NPA as the party that divided the left and they thus rejected it.
These results must, however, also be seen in the context of the very high level of abstention. If we take into account non-valid votes, participation amounted to only 49 % of the electorate in the second round, certainly a little more than in the first round (less than 45 %). The decline is considerable when we compare this with the 2004 regional elections (63 % participation). This drop between 2004 and 2010, at the very moment when the main parties made these elections a national matter, shows the distance between the dominant political parties and the electorate. Seen in this way, it is very probably tied to the voters’ lack of confidence in the ability of the political parties to really change things. This crisis of confidence is further strengthened in what in France is called the sensitive areas, i.e. the areas where the most discriminated people live, often but not always of immigrant origin. In the department of Seine-St-Denis, in the midst of the former “Red Belt” of Paris, the number of valid votes amounts on average to 38 % of the electorate, sometimes less than 30 %, in particular in the cities where confrontations with the police occurred recently. However, contrary to what is sometimes asserted, the electorate in the sensitive areas does not benefit the extreme-right, which did not manage to get 10 % of the valid votes in the Paris region, which would have made it possible to run for the second round.
Nevertheless, many people talked rightly of a “comeback” of right-wing extremism in these elections. What does this mean exactly? In the first round, the lists of the National Front and some other small right-wing extremist groups got more than 12 % of the valid votes. In the second round, the National Front was able to run in only 12 regions out of 22 (obtaining from 15 to 20 % of the votes cast, with peaks of over 22 % for Jean-Marie Le Pen in the south, of which Marseille is the capital city, and for his daughter Marine, who will very probably succeed him, in the North). But, on average, we are still far from the 19 % obtained by the right-wing extremist candidates in the 2002 presidential election. Why then speak about a comeback? Because meanwhile Nicolas Sarkozy and his party (UMP) made strong efforts to “siphon” off the votes of the extreme-right, not unsuccessfully as the National Front fell to 10.5 % in the 2007 presidential election and even to 6.3 % in the 2009 European elections. But the UMP managed this not by implementing policies likely to get rid of the inequalities in the country, which feed the vote for the National Front, but by taking back some of the themes which made the National Front a success: a little populism, and much stress on the issue of security, which is a relatively new theme and puts the theme of national identity on the agenda. When the new government was founded in 2007, a Ministry of Imigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidaristic Development was created. On the symbolic level, amalgamating immigration and national identity was a strong gesture, clearly making immigration into a problem for the national identity, which is very close to the most familiar themes of the National Front. This ambiguity was to be stressed by initiating a “debate on the national identity” taken in November, 2009 by the Minister, Éric Besson, a former top-officer of the Socialist Party. The dates chosen revealed the real objective pursued: the debate was to end with a big national colloquium two weeks before the regional elections of March, 2010. In fact, it very quickly turned around immigration and not national identity, which opened a path to the most extreme opinions – so much so that the government was very quickly forced to put the debate aside. The real winner was the National Front, whose favourite themes thus came back on the public agenda.
These regional elections were a brilliant success for the left and its constituencies (socialists, ecologists and the Left Front). This success is, however, a little marred by the feeling that the voters voted more against Nicolas Sarkozy than for the left and by the low rate of participation in the ballot, which expresses the loss of confidence in the political parties in general and the dominant parties (the right and the Socialist Party) more specifically. This “crisis of citizenship”, whose roots are in part the consequences of years of liberal economic and social policies, is particularly perceptible among the most socially disadvantaged part of the population. It truly puts democracy at risk, as does from another point of view the relative “comeback” of right-wing extremism.