France
Second Round of French Regional Elections Puts Conservatives and Socialists Into Office

Extremely low voter turnout
picture alliance / Photoshot
© picture alliance / Photoshot

The second round of France’s regional and departmental elections, held on 26 June, confirmed virtually all the trends that had emerged since the first round a week earlier. At local level, the incumbents won across the board, with the Socialists (PS) retaining their five regions of Occitanie, Brittany, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Centre-Val-de Loire and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, while the Conservatives (Les Républicains, LR) continued to reign supreme in the other seven regions. The only change to the composition of regional councils came in La Réunion, where Huguette Bello, the PS/La France Insoumise candidate, beat outgoing ex-LR president Didier Robert. But what lies behind this electoral behaviour at local level, given it does not square with the upheavals seen in the political landscape since the last presidential elections and the arrival of La République en Marche (LREM)?

Voter Turnout Remains at an Historic Low, Playing Into the Hands of Conservatives and Socialists

Caution is needed when drawing any wide-ranging conclusions, since only 34.3 per cent of French citizens cast their vote in this Sunday’s second round, barely one percentage point more than in the first round. Conservatives are already keen to read signs of a political comeback at national level into the soaring successes of Xavier Bertrand (52.4 per cent in Haut-de-France), Laurent Wauquiez (55.1 per cent in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes) and Valérie Pécresse (45.9 per cent in Île-de-France). However, this development, as well as discussions about a future presidential candidate able to challenge Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen, should be analysed in the context of the turnout. Those who voted – mainly older people and the middle class – are potentially core PS and LR voters. One could easily get the impression that everything in France is the same as before, with a clear division between the left and right ends of the party political spectrum. But the reality – seen in the unprecedented numbers who shunned the local elections – is much more that a large part of the electorate evidently does not feel represented by what the parties have to offer, despite wall-to-wall appeals to use their right to vote in the second ballot.

Pact Between LREM and LR Against Right-Wing Extremists in PACA, Southern France, Has Worked

Speculation was rife between the first and second ballots as to whether Marine le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) could achieve a respectable victory in the southern French region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and lead a regional council for the first time ever. With 57 compared to 43 per cent of votes, Renaud Muselier, the conservative candidate, has now triumphed over Thierry Mariani of the RN, but only thanks to LREM’s help. LREM withdrew their respective candidates in favour of a joint electoral list, calling on their voters to join the “republican front” against the right. The left did the same after the first round. LREM and LR have been heavily criticised beforehand, this strategy caused a veritable crisis of identity among conservatives. And LREM was accused of not differentiating itself enough from the conservatives. Although 43 per cent was a staggering result for the RN, the significance of the republican front averting a far-right victory in the region goes beyond French regional politics. A victory by European Member of Parliament Thierry Mariani, who like other MEPs had just been blacklisted for a pro-Russian mission to observe elections in Crimea, might have had further-reaching consequences. Mariani repeatedly spoke out against the Franco-German Treaty of Aachen and against the EU’s alleged supremacy. As political scientist Paul Maurice told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Mariani is pursuing “a distinctly pro-Russian discourse and may seek to tap into Russian alternatives to EU funding”. Fortunately, Sunday’s election results have now averted such scenarios.

LREM Needs to Reinvent Itself

Having slightly underperformed forecasts in the first round of voting, the ruling party of Emmanuel Macron failed, as expected, to claim any successes in the second round either, averaging a very poor 7 per cent nationally. In the eight regions where LREM actually maintained a list for the second round, the party placed no higher than third. The election was a “slap in the face for democracy and for our political party”, commented parliamentary LREM-leader in the National assembly, Christophe Castaner. But in all likelihood, this failure will only lead to the replacement of individual ministers in early July, rather than a comprehensive government reshuffle. It remains to be seen, however, whether LREM’s leadership team changes and whether secretary general Stanislas Guerini, who has come under fire, steps down. In addition to these personnel issues, it will likely become much more important for LREM in the coming months to clearly define its core content and, given the multitude of other centrist parties (above all Mouvement Démocrate and Agir), contain the splintering, so that it can present a united front when the presidential election campaign starts. Hopefully, someone or other will use the summer break to come up with a few creative ideas to sharpen the party’s strategic direction.

 

Jeanette Süß is European Affairs Manager at the “European Dialogue” regional office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Brussels.