French elections can be a baffling experience. Even the French have largely given up trying to work out who is who, with turnout in regional elections at an all-time low.
The first round of the regional elections took place on Sunday. That’s right, there is more than one round. The parties with the most votes go through to the next round, unless there is a clear winner in the first round.
Unfortunately, the French elections on Sunday were held in the most appalling weather conditions. Large parts of the country saw thunderstorms, heavy rain, very strong wind and even hail the size of tennis balls. Other parts of the country, on the other hand, saw a low turnout because they had a sunny end to the lockdown period.
At lunchtime, turnout was just 12.2% – the lowest it had been in decades. By the end of the day, turnout across France was only 34%, the lowest turnout for any election on record.
Because the French presidential elections 2022 are less than a year away, media analysts were watching for any sign that might indicate success for this party or a decline for others. In the end, turnout was just too low and regional politics too fragmented to draw any firm conclusions.
Just down the road from Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois in Béziers, voters had a choice of no fewer than ten parties whose names included the name of the Occitanie region in some form: Occitanie populaire, Occitanie en Commune, L’Occitanie Naturellement, Nouvel Élan pour Occitanie, Du courage for l’Occitanie, Rassembler l’Occitanie… You get the idea, but can you guess what policies they all stand for?
In the rest of France, most voters backed candidates for centre-left and centre-right coalitions. Local anti-lockdown candidates did not get more than 1% of the votes locally.
To add to the confusion, President Macron’s centrist, liberal and pro-European party En Marche (or La République En Marche! (LREM) to give it its full name) focuses more on next year’s presidential elections. Only launched in 2016 as a pop-up party with huge popular support, it has nevertheless not become a grassroots movement with local councillors. Where En Marche did have candidates, many did not make it through to the second round. Overall, Macron’s party captured just 10% of the vote.
Ironically, Macron’s victory in the 2017 presidential election may help the far-right in next year’s election. Macron broke the dominance of France’s mainstream political parties with his newly-launched En Marche. For the first time, a victory for a smaller party was no longer unthinkable. But once he was President, Macron failed to build a local movement.
However, the odds are still that Macron will win next year’s presidential election by doing deals with other parties to keep the far-right out. Voters too have a tendency to recoil in horror from voting for the far-right when it really comes down to it. And Macron’s personal popularity remains steady.
The far-right, anti-immigration and anti-globalisation party leader Marin le Pen had hoped to get a boost from good results in the regional elections. She has worked hard to mask her party’s hardline racist nature and make everyday anti-migration the centre of her policies. It is what you would call ‘putting lipstick on a pig’. But her supporters decided to stay at home this time and watch football instead.
Only in PACA (the southeast region of Provence, Alpes and Côte d’Azur) did her party Rassemblement National (previously called the National Front) gain a narrow victory. Elsewhere it gained fewer votes than in the 2015 regional elections, which were held just after an Islamic terror attack.
International media are very keen to highlight any signs of a trend towards the far-right in France. Even Reuters’ headline focused singularly on Marin le Pen’s narrow win in the southeast. The real picture is far more complicated. As much as the French like to use a less important election as a protest vote, the final result is normally much more balanced around the centre.
The second round of voting takes place on Sunday 27 June.