First round of the regional elections in France: takeways

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The first round of the elections for the renewal of the members of the 18 regional councils (local governments mainly in charge of local economic development including digital transformation, higher education and research, transportation) was held yesterday, June 20th. The second round will be held on June 27th. Regional councils are elected every six years under a proportional voting list system, where the first list of the second round gets an absolute majority of councilors. In all, 1,758 regional councilor positions are up for grabs.

The main takeaway of this election is that the parties of the two main contenders to the Presidential elections have scored poorly. With barely any local anchorage, the presidential LaREM party was somewhat expected to lag behind. The real surprise comes from the far right populist Rassemblement National (RN party led by Marine Le Pen) which didn’t generate the expected tsunami and may, at best, win the south-east PACA region where it has anyway been well positioned for several years. Eyes will turn now to the PACA region, a test for the 40-year-old “Republican Pact” (with candidates likely to stay on in the second round pulling out of the race to throw their weight behind whatever candidate is better placed – regardless of party affiliation – to prevent a far right or populist candidate from winning the election or a majority).

 

The following key outcomes can be taken out of this poll:

 

  • The past months’ campaign focused on security and immigration issues, which are outside of the scope of regions, seems to have played against the voter turnout rate. The turnout rate droppedat around 33.9% (versus 50.09% the last time around), one of the lowest for a poll held in France since 1945. The unprecedented low turnout can be explained in part by the Covid-19 pandemic effect, but it is also very likely due to the unstable national political situation, on top of the fact that the role in politics played by the regions is typically not well-known.
  • The far-right populist RN party underscored in almost all regions where it was expected to act as a sort of kingmaker, in some regions making even lower scores than in 2015. A question mark hovers however over the large south-east region PACA (integrating the cities of Marseille and Nice), where the RN candidate is neck in neck with the incumbent conservative president from the LR party who was backed by the presidential party LaREM.
  • Despite the low turnout, the heads of list standing for re-election from both the conservative Les Républicains (LR) party and the Socialist Party managed to mobilize voters to obtain quite comfortable scores. These candidates usually enjoy strong political visibility due to the size of the regions they head and, oftentimes, due to their participation in politics at a national level.
  • On the one hand, of the incumbent LR candidates who came out strong in this first round, three of them are also likely to run for presidential elections – and potentially confront themselves to do so, namely Valérie Pécresse (Paris metropolitan area), Xavier Bertrand (northern Hauts-de-France region) and Laurent Wauquiez (center-east Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region). 
  • On the other hand, the left leaning forces are now in a “pivot” position and their behavior will be decisive in several regions for the second round.
  • The presidential majority LaREM party comes out weakened from these elections, achieving an overall score of around 11%. LaREM candidates fared well especially in the Bretagne region, coming second. But in some regions, such as the center-east Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, LaREM candidates may not reach the second round even though they were given as kingmakers.
  • The Greens - which are expected to play a crucial role for the Presidential elections - achieved honorable scores in line with the EU elections score (13%), overall. But drawing a lesson is difficult, as the Greens chose to form different alliances or go on their own region by region.

 

The usual negotiations, twists and turns lie ahead this coming week in the interval between the two rounds, considering that the first list on the finish line takes the majorityin regional councils. The stakes are immediate, with the risk that the RN may win the majority of the seats in the PACA regions, whereas the presidential majority party will have to find a way to take part to local government.