The Front National and the Regional Elections—Just the Facts

So yesterday was the first round of the French regional elections. The second round will take place this Sunday.

Before analyzing the results, it seems necessary to explain what a région is in the French electoral context . . . and even to explain the context itself.

The last presidential and législatives (general) elections were held in April-May and June 2012. On 2012, May 6th, François Hollande, the Socialist candidate, defeated the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy (centre-right), at the second round of the presidential election.

On 2012, June 17th, the socialist candidates won the législatives elections and formed a majority at the National Assembly, which enabled the Socialist Party to establish a government. It was led from June 2012 to March 2014 by Jean-Marc Ayrault; it has, since then, been led by Barcelona-born Manuel Valls.

In 2013, there was no election in France. Starting in 2014, Richard and I have recorded podcasts on every direct election that took place:

  • The municipal elections, concerning the communes (cities and villages), in March 2014 ("The Fascist Menace"); our podcast's title was of course ironical, since Front national (FN) and its allies won 14 communes... out of the 36,500+ communes in France;
  • The European parliamentary election, in May 2014 ("The Brussels Bogeyman"); FN won 24 seats out of the 74 French seats at the European Parliament and became, for one day, "the first party in France;"
  • The departmental elections, concerning the départements, in March 2015 ("The Glass Ceiling"); FN got none (0) of the 96 départements.

The first thing that might be difficult to understand for a non-French reader is the difference between the département and the région.

The départements were established in 1790 by the Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. They were created to replace the former royal provinces and break them down into smaller, geometric units; their purpose was not to be new provinces but simply to make the nation easier to administer by the center, Paris. In every département, there is a préfet, appointed by the central government to uphold the State's authority locally. This quasi-military function is complemented by a conseil départemental (or conseil général, as it used to be called), which consists of representatives elected at the local level. They vote on local policies, although said policies depend on laws voted by the national Parliament and decrees taken by the central government.

The régions are more recent; created in 1982, they were supposed to revive the former royal provinces, with, in some cases, historic or even ethnic significance: Alsace, Aquitaine, Auvergne, Britanny, Burgundy, Champagne, Franche-Comté, Languedoc, Limousin, Lorraine, Normandy, Picardy, Provence, etc. This cryptic “identitarian” nature of the régions was undermined by a new regional organization decided by the government, effective in 2016. From the 22 régions established in 1982, only 13 will survive, with the dissolution of peculiar régions like Germanic Alsace into greater geographical areas.

Those two territorial levels are not disconnected. Actually, a région is a group of départements.

Thus, this year's regional election doesn't happen at the regional level, but at the département's level. In every département, there is a number of seats to win. The party that will run the région will be the one that will get the highest number of the départements' representatives.

Here is France's new regional map (the régions' inner borders are those of the départements; a région being a group of départements and not a historic province having a peculiar culture, this explains the extreme hyphenization of some régions' names):

Here, now, is the same map colored according to the political party that finished the first round at the first place (pink: Socialist Party and its allies; blue: "Les Républicains," Sarkozy's party, and its allies; purple: Marine Le Pen's FN).

Now, it is really important to understand that this is only a first round. In all these régions, the three main parties have obtained the 10 percent threshold that allows them to go to the second round this Sunday.

Out of the 6 régions where FN has managed to finish the first round at the first place, only two are likely to be won:

  • Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, with departmental lists led by FN's president, Marine Le Pen; her lists finished first in every département, with over 40 percent of the vote on average, and will likely garner a majority of the seats this Sunday;
  • Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, with the lists led by Marine's niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, and a similar favorable scenario.

In the four other régions, the lists that didn't get the 10 percent threshold but got substantial support are either of the mainstream Left or the mainstream Right; most of their votes will probably go to either one of the two mainstream lists, allowing them to defeat FN, even if an FN victory there is possible.

The Houellebecquian Moment

Notice that I used "likely" and not "certainly" to describe the outcome of the second round in the two “winnable” régions.

Right after the official results were known, the Socialist Party decided to withdraw its lists wherever it finished third. The purpose is for them to make sure FN won't get any région by supporting the mainstream Right's candidates, even if it means, for them, losing all their seats in the process. For all their superficial differences, the mainstream Left and Right are hand-in-hand when it comes to opposing what they call the "Far Right."

The reverse scenario happened in 2009, in a municipal by-election in Hénin-Beaumont (located in Pas-de-Calais, one of the départements where Marine Le Pen is presenting her lists). Sarkozy's party, which was then in office, supported a left-wing coalition against FN, in spite of the rampant corruption of the local political class.

This year, for some reason, Sarkozy is refusing to follow the same strategy. But if his two candidates opposed to Marine Le Pen and Marion Maréchal Le Pen eventually win on Sunday, they will de facto become the Left's champions, as was Jacques Chirac when he defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen at the second round of 2002 presidential election.

This systematic opposition of the establishment (mainstream parties but also the media, big companies, judges, trade unions, public servants, NGOs, which have been quite vocal against the aforementioned "Fascist menace" since the beginning of the campaign) to FN, is what made Richard and I use, ironically, the “Glass Ceiling” phrase to describe FN's prospects. With universal suffrage, you need half of the votes plus one to get elected. And with a turnout rate of only 50%, it indicates that many voters who could wish for a true alternative to the current ruling class don't see FN as being this alternative.

Even as Marine Le Pen is increasingly popular in France, a scenario like that of Michel Houellebecq's Submission, where a vast coalition against FN readily votes the Muslim Brotherhood into power, is quite possible in the future, though not as soon as Houellebecq predicted in his last novel (2022).

That said, we're still in 2015, and there's the second round on Sunday. I'll give you a quick update as soon as the results will be public, and we'll record a podcast the day after.

Stay tuned!