23 March 2015

First of all, the numbers

Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party – which was running on a ticket with centrist parties UDI and MoDem – finished ahead in the first round of the French local elections yesterday, winning 29.4% of the nationwide vote. Marine Le Pen’s anti-euro Front National came second with 25.19% of votes, while French President François Hollande’s Socialist Party finished third with only 21.54% of support.

What’s this election about?

It’s never easy to navigate one’s way through local elections, so here’s some background information:

  • This election is about renewing France’s 101 departments. Caught in between mayors and regions, the departments are the least powerful of local government levels in France – and their competences look set to be curbed further by a territorial reform bill (NOTRe) currently under discussion in the French parliament;
  • The 101 departments are divided into 2,054 cantons. Each canton elects two councillors. The sum of the councillors elected in the various cantons composing a specific department gives the final majority. In practice, this means we have to wait until Sunday’s second round to have a clear idea of how many departments each party actually controls. Of course, quite a few departments are now expected to swing from the centre-left to the centre-right;
  • To complicate things further, under the new electoral system for departmental elections people vote for tickets of two candidates. The two must be a man and a woman, but can come from different parties. This doesn’t allow us to, for instance, split UMP votes from those of its allies – making a like-for-like comparison with Front National virtually impossible.

So how well did Front National do?

Not as well as expected, if we take the latest opinion polls as a baseline. Front National was foreseen to win around 30% of the vote across France, but fell well short of that.

No vague  Bleue Marine, but hardly a defeat.

This is the second consecutive election showing that a quarter of French voters now support the party led by Marine Le Pen. Compared to last May’s European Parliament elections, Front National has actually won more votes (5.1 million, up from 4.7 million). Yesterday’s was the highest score ever obtained by Front National in local elections. Had Sarkozy’s UMP not been running on a ticket with other centrist forces, perhaps Front National would have come out as the single largest party.

As a further reminder, in the 2011 departmental elections Front National had won around 15% of the nationwide vote in the first round.

More than just a protest party

There’s still a lot to play for in these local elections. A second round of voting will be needed in the vast majority of cantons (1,863 out of 2,054 according to Le Figaro), and Front National candidates will feature in over a thousand of cases. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has already urged all the mainstream parties to join forces and block Front National winning any of the run-offs. However, Sarkozy has made it clear that he will not give UMP voters any indication as to what to do in those cantons where Front National will face the Socialist Party (or other left-wing parties) in the second round. This makes the final outcome more unpredictable.

Beyond the numbers, though, the key message from these elections is that the strength of Front National has become hard to ignore. A strong showing in the European Parliament elections can be fairly easily dismissed as a ‘protest vote’. A solid performance in local elections much less so. For at least a quarter of French voters, Front National is more than just a channel to voice their dissatisfaction with the traditional political forces. It’s a party they would like their local communities to be run by.

Admittedly, French presidential elections are a totally different story. However, yesterday’s local vote suggests that the chances of Marine Le Pen featuring in the final duel for the Elysée in 2017 remain intact – and non-negligible.