A Win for the Established
The regional elections were widely seen as prognostic for the next presidential elections in 2022. However, these predictions did not come true after the first round of this Sunday's regional elections in the 13 regions of France: While France’s traditional left-right divide (which had softened in recent years) has re-emerged, voter turnout was at a record low, therefore casting doubt on the state of democracy in France.
Only One in Three Went to the Polls: 80 per Cent of Young People Did Abstain
Perhaps it was simply the decidedly pleasant weather that kept the French from the polls on Sunday. The mere 33.1% voter turnout for the first round of regional elections leads to believe that civic engagement is low. In comparison, the turnout for the last regional elections in 2015 was much higher, at just under 50%. Only the 2000 referendum on the five-year term showed a lower turnout. However, we need to reflect on premature conclusions based on these numbers. Apart from the weather, there is enough evidence to argue that the low turnout reflects a lack of interest or at least a lack of identification of citizens with political parties as such. Although the regions play a significant role in the daily life of French people, regional elections are not perceived as something relevant for most of them anymore. The regions are responsible for school and public transport, vocational training, regional planning, economic development and the management of structural funds of the EU. Despite these competences, the election campaign focused largely on national debates, mainly pushed by Marine le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN). Its candidates focused on issues that the regions are not even responsible for, such as internal security (with the exception of security in railway stations or schools), the reduction of immigration and the state of the police, which the RN considers disastrous. In addition, the media disproportionately highlighted the presidential election, instead of underlining the real competences of the regions and solutions offered by the respective candidates. The resulting abstention rate is worrying, especially among young voters. Around 87% of 18-24 year olds decided to ditch the polls. According to surveys conducted by Ipsos/Sofa Steria, it was mainly the older and better-educated middle class who cast their vote on election Sunday.
No Renewal - The Incumbents' Bonus and the Left-Right Divide Slow Down RN
What results can we draw from the parties’ performance? Given the economic and social instability, exacerbated by the Covid crisis, most voters turned to the well-known incumbents, i.e. the Republicans (with an average of 28.5 per cent) and the Socialist Party. The latter, in particular, had become rather insignificant since the last presidential elections. Quite the contrary, the 18 per cent average score of the socialists seems triumphant. On the other side of the political spectrum, the surprise was no less resounding: with an average score of 18.5 per cent, RN scored well below the party’s expectations. After all, forecasts had predicted that Marine Le Pen's far-right party would be in the lead in six regions. Only in Provence Alpes Côtes D'Azur did the RN come in ahead of the Republican Renaud Muselier with 36.4 percent, compared to 31.9 percent; a much smaller lead than expected.
The party was thus unable to build on its success in the last regional elections, where it won 27.7 per cent of the vote nationwide, a month after the attacks of 13 November 2015. Indeed, the RN is particularly penalised by electoral abstention. An analysis of abstentionists, carried out by the Ipsos-Sopra Steria institute, carried out with 3,000 people registered on the electoral roll, makes this clear: 73 per cent of voters who say they voted for Marine Le Pen in 2017 did not vote on Sunday, compared to 44 per cent of former François Fillon voters and 60 per cent of Emmanuel Macron voters. The disengaged, having failed to express themselves through new movements such as En Marche or "no-label lists" as in the municipal elections, turned their backs on the polls instead of voting RN or La France Insoumise. Ministerial circles of LREM also noted, that RN follows a normalisation strategy, which leads a part of French citizens to abstain rather than voting for Marine Le Pen.
La République en Marche Lacks Local Base
Just like in the municipal and senatorial elections, the presidential party failed to win at regional level with a mere 11.7 per cent national average, despite the support of the other parties in the government coalition, the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) and Agir.
All three parties had hoped for a result of around 15 per cent. However, since they failed to meet the 10 per cent threshold, they are now excluded from running for the second round in the three regions of Hauts-de-France, Occitanie and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. This failure is all the more remarkable given the efforts undertaken by President Macron, who mobilised five ministers in Hauts-de-France, including Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti, a candidate in Pas-de-Calais. The best results were obtained with the MoDem candidate and Minister for Relations with Parliament, Marc Fesneau (15.5 per cent) in Centre-Val-de Loire and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Geneviève Darrieussecq (14.6 per cent) in Nouvelle Aquitaine. Commenting on the defeat of the majority as a whole, Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin said that the regions were simply not indicative for the presidential elections: "The French are a political nation that is not stupid. When they vote for the regionals, they vote for a regional president. When they vote for the president of the Republic, they will choose the president of the Republic."
For the second round of elections, we will witness a strategy that would be anything but imaginable at the national: to prevent RN from winning, the lists of the government majority will form a republican front in those regions at risk, assured both the secretary general of LREM, Stanislas Guerini, and the government spokesman Gabriel Attal.
The fact that none of Macron's ministers will hold a regional post will probably not lead to a reshuffle of the ministerial cabinet. However, the regionals will spark debates about realignments - in terms of personnel and content - within LREM and the government majority. Between now and the second round of elections on 27 June, the parties should make the regions more visible in the minds of the French, especially among young people. More political education, less personality cult around national political celebrities and a return to the real issues at stake in the regions, such as the privatisation of local trains, could be important elements to bring voters back to the polls.
Jeanette Süß is European Affairs Manager at the regional office „European Dialogue“ of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Brussels.