The Cantons of France

French departments are governed by General Councils, a timeless institution in existence, in one form or another, since the Revolution. Since 1982, their powers have been unclear and of little importance nationally, but they remain the basis of departmental institutions. The General Council is, in a way, a National Assembly at the local level. After all, both use constituencies, and in General Councils, they’re called cantons. These cantons nowadays serve mostly as electoral constituencies for electing one councillor to the General Council, and this person is election using the same system as the one used to elect deputies to Paris – a two-round majority uninomial system. The only difference is that the cantonal elections have a lower threshold for getting into the runoff: 10% of registered voters against 12.5% nationally. The other major difference is that, normally, councillors have a six-year term, sometimes extended to seven; and that they’re renewed by halves every, what, three or four years (as of now, in 2004 and 2008, with the 2004 series up in 2011 and the 2008 series up in 2014).

Cantons are awful things, really. Rural cantons hold disproportionate influence, though that doesn’t really help the right much since the rural-urban divide is not as important as other divides in France, and the 2004 and 2008 were massive anti-government elections and anti-government feelings affected urbanites as much as rural folks. Cantons, apparently, must hold around 20,000 people. But since France has this thing against redistricting, some rural cantons have barely 1000 people while urban cantons hold over 30,000 people. Aix-en-Provence-Sud-Ouest has 68,774 people while Barcillonnette has 353 inhabitants!

Because of the electoral system and also due to the electoral role and composition of political parties, these elections have known to favour the moderate parties of the system over the extremes. For that reason, the Communist Party has never ruled many departments and despite past electoral results well up in the 20s, they never had that percentage of councillors nationally. Parties such as the old Radical Party, which was known to be a party of notables, or well-known local political machines, were favoured by this system and they held a disproportionate amount of seats and presidencies. Other centrist or moderates parties such as the Christian democrats (MRP and successors) and the CNI were important players. In a way, the Fourth Republic lived on in the General Councils until the late 60s or 70s. For example, in the 1961 cantonal elections, the PCF won 18.6% of the vote and 52 seats. Meanwhile, the Socialists (also a local machine back then, and even today) won 271 seats on 16.8% and the Radicals won 211 seats on 7.4%! The same has happened today to marginalize the far-right (FN) in General Councils. Local political dynasties are also very important, and sometimes these dynasties don’t even die out after the instigator of the dynasty has himself kicked the bucket!

I undertook the massive project of mapping the ‘political colour’ of all of these cantons or constituencies, around 4,000 of them. To my knowledge, such as a national map of all cantons cannot be found online or publicly. The map is up-to-date as of October 2009, therefore including changes in political affiliation since the 2004 or 2008 cantonal elections. There are by-elections in one or more cantons about weekly in the ‘school-year’.

Some of the actual classifications in each canton may be a matter of debate, but I used my best information and sources. And some borders might not be fully accurate, especially when my base maps didn’t include inner-city areas.

Cantons Ouest

A larger version (huge) can be found here. Parties should be relatively straightforward. ExG refers to the far-left, in this case the Independent Workers’ Party (POI) and also Les Alternatifs, a rough confederation of eco-socialists, anti-globalizations and that type. The CAP, Convention for a Progressive Alternative, is a party founded by reformist Communists (Marcel Rigout in Haute-Vienne) and also eco-socialists and New Left types. It’s mostly a local party in Haute-Vienne. Ecolo refers to ecologists who are not members of the Greens. Basques refers to a Basque Regionalist councillor, and PNC refers to the Party of the Corsican Nation (Corsican nationalists/autonomists). AC refers to the Centrist Alliance, a centrist outfit founded by Senator Jean Arthuis. Finally, Alsace d’abord is a far-right Alsatian regionalist party. On the note of DVD and DVG, these people are oftentimes, especially in cantonal elections, independents classified by the state as right-wing or left-wing. They sometimes refer to some small parties which the state doesn’t classify under a specific etiquette (in this case, the MPF and DLR), but most of the time I’ve tried to figure out if they belonged to a small outfit or not and classified them as such. DVD and DVG usually dominate rural areas, where party etiquette is less ‘solid’ and important.

The map is obviously a sea of pink, due to the absolute dominance of the left in the 2004 and 2008 elections. The old Southwest, the base of French radicalism and later socialism is a sea of almost unbroken PS pink. The Socialist tradition in this area, an old area of secular opposition to Paris and the Catholic-bourgeois regime of the time, is strongest in rural areas and even stronger in the high isolated mountain villages high up in the Pyrenées Mountains. The urban cores of this area: Toulouse, Carcassonne, Tarbes, Castres and so forth were wealthier and had less of a tradition of opposition to Paris than the rural areas did. However, the gentrification of Socialism in France as a movement acceptable to the middle-class has turned even those isolated blue areas into pink areas. Although, it should be noted, the few blue cantons tend to be in this area.

Also notable on this map is the rough shape of a C or G starting around Haute-Saône in the east, circling through the Red Allier and Limousin, and then the Southwest before lining the Mediterranean coast until Aubagne and the outskirts of Marseille and ending in the Alps. This ‘C’ shaped pattern used to be the map of French socialism, especially visible in the 1965 runoff. Then, however, the Var and Alpes-Maritimes were left-wing strongholds!

On the topic of the Var, it’s interesting to see the remnants of backwoods left-wing support here! The old Var rouge, also an area of old secular opposition to Parisian institutions made the department an old left-wing stronghold before Pieds-Noirs from Algeria and old wealthy retirees transformed the region entirely.

The Limousin in central France is an old left-wing stronghold, and a base of rural communism though now rural socialism. The tradition says that Limousin workers who worked in Paris brought home with them socialist ideals. The Limousin is France’s most socialist and left-wing region.

The industrial northern quarter of France, encompassing the Nord, Flanders, the Artois and Pas-de-Calais, Picardy, and parts of Normandy around Le Havre, Rouen and Dieppe are still visible.

Outside of the aforementioned areas, where socialism is an older trend albeit somewhat evaporated in parts, the ‘new’ Socialist areas are in Bretagne (the region which trended the most to the left between 1974 and today), parts of the Pays-de-la-Loire, and in other urban and suburban areas. In Bretagne, once a rural strongly Catholic (clerical) region and the left’s worst region, the rise of the left is remarkable. Most of it is due to the experience of the left in power and the destruction of the clerical’s myth that socialism in power meant communism in power and the second coming of Stalin but more importantly to the gentrification and centrist drift of the PS in Bretagne. This shift has turned the tide in Bretagne, a strongly pro-European and moderate region in favour of the PS. The left’s first gains came in urban cores such as Rennes, Brest, Quimper, Nantes and so forth. In the late 1990s and during Chirac’s second term, the PS gained in suburban areas, generally middle-class and growing. While these suburban areas lean more on the right in national elections, they have been the key to the Socialist domination of the departments and regions. However, this isn’t to say that Bretagne was an entirely blue map in 1970 or so, far from it. There has always been a strongly left-wing area in the Guingampais Country, which is located west of Saint-Brieuc in the southwestern areas of the Côtes-d’Armor department. This also extends into the northwestern areas of Morbihan and to the north-eastern areas of the Finistère around the city of Morlaix. This is a rural though anti-clerical area, and it is also known as the Breton Red Belt, as it too elected Communists. Interestingly, the city of Douarnenez, whose canton is ironically held by the UMP today, elected the first Communist mayor in France. In Douarnenez, but also in Concarneau and other coastal towns in Cornouaille-Finistère Sud, there was a strong Communist tradition known as le communisme sardinier (‘Sardine communism’!), referring to the fact that workers in the sardinières (sardine processing factories) voted PCF by 1920 or so.

The aforementioned urban-suburban support of the PS is also visible around Nantes (huge suburbia), Tours, Caen, Rouen, La Rochelle, Nancy and so forth. In some cases, though, it’s just urban support because the suburbia is not middle-class but upper-class (Strasbourg, Orleans, Le Havre etc). In fact, the destruction of the right in urban cores is very marked here, and quite amazing. Some cities, such as Rennes, are all left-wing, while most have just one or two right-wing cantons, mostly in the wealthy city centre.

A note on the PCF over here, there’s still a fair share of red in here. What are these areas? Firstly, you have a strongly Communist belt of support in the old coalfield of the north, though it is limited to only the Nord department and does not extend into the Pas-de-Calais. In the Pas-de-Calais, there is a very strong PS fed in the Pas-de-Calais. Not only in terms of members, but also in terms of organization and power on the ground. In the Nord, the PS fed is powerful on its membership numbers, but the PCF organization in strong in the old mining areas. The PCF has held its Meurthe-et-Moselle minefield strongholds very well, not so well in Moselle. Here again, you’re probably seeing the effects of local economic and party organization factors (though the PCF’s Lorrain base was much more Meurthe-et-Mosellan than Mosellan). Other mining areas, such as Firminy (Loire), Carmaux (Tarn), Montceau-les-Mines (Saône-et-Loire) also have PCF councillors. The industrial [harbour] suburbs of Marseille (Fos-sur-Mer, Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône), Le Havre (Gonfreville-l’Orcher and part of the city proper) are Communist strongholds, but the poorer working-class suburbs of Lyon (Vénissieux), Paris (the 93 department, part of the Val-d’Oise, Nanterre, Trappes, Argenteuil, Mantes-la-Jolie), Grenoble, Tours, and so forth are also old PCF areas though the decline in most marked here. Due in part to the influx of immigrants, who end up being less likely to become solid PCF voters than old white workers are. The PCF also holds a few seats out in Champagne, in places such as Romilly-sur-Seine, which are old industrial cities built along the Paris-Lyon railway. The PCF has survived well in the backwoods areas of the Cévennes mountain range (Gard and parts of Lozère). These are old mining areas, but also old Protestant (French Protestants are left-wing, save for Alsace) areas and old republican areas in the middle of ultra-conservative Catholic low-lying land (atleast compared to the surrounding mountains) of Lozère. Voting patterns in this area are very funny. The PCF holds the Allier General Council, where it is strong in the rural areas in the west of the department. This area of rural communism, which extends into the Cher and Indre too, is based on old sharecropping in the area but also poor communities where miners from Commentry lived. Commentry, ironically held by the right, an old industrial and mining town, was the world’s first socialist city in 1882. In the Allier, the cities are usually more right-wing. Especially Vichy (insert snarky comment here).

“Local parties” are also very funny to see. Most hilarious has to be the survival of the PRG in La Rochelle. They almost have a majority of seats, more than 10 years after Michel Crépeau’s death. Michel Crépeau was the Radical Mayor of La Rochelle for many years, and it seems as if the traditional prevails again today. Other interesting local strongholds include the MoDem in Bayrou’s Pyrenées-Atlantiques, the MPF in Philippe de Villiers’ Vendée, the PG in Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Essonne, and the PRG in Haute-Corse (family dynasties) Tarn-et-Garonne (Jean-Michel Baylet’s turf) the Lot and so forth. The CAP in Haute-Vienne is also a local factor, which also has a base in the Val-d’Oise.

So, you ask, where the hell does the right survive today? On this map, it’s obviously wealthy areas (coastal, urban, suburban or exurban), old rural Catholic areas (part of Bretagne, Lozère, Cantal, Haute-Loire, parts of the Aveyron, southern Doubs, Moselle and so forth), Chirac’s turf in Corrèze (fast disappearing under Sarkozy), the conservative rural areas out east, and Alsace (also Catholic, though Protestants vote right-wing, though Protestants voted Gaullist and not as much Christian democratic UDF in the past). As you can see, there’s not much categories here! Alsace is actually very interesting politically, but would take too long to write about here.

That’s about all I can think of for now, but I leave this post open to questions on any specific thing. In the end, I’ll also publish this post on a special page of its own.


Posted on October 9, 2009, in France, Political and Electoral Demographics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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