France Cantonals 2011

The first round of cantonal elections for half of France’s 4000-some cantons were held on Sunday, March 20. Around 2,023 cantons or so were up. Cantons are single-member constituencies which serve to elect member of the General Council, which is the legislative organ of each department. Cantons, created in 1795, and general councils, created in 1800 (which are elected since 1833) are among the oldest institutions in France. Their powers are relatively limited, being most notably responsible for social services and local development. Cantons can thus be seen as wards or districts which are the constituencies electing members of local authorities in Great Britain and other countries. Cantons are seldom redistricted, and rural areas are woefully overrepresented overall. You can find out more on cantons in an old post of mine, which explained the details of cantons and the current cantonal map.

Each canton has one councillor which is elected to a six-year term (sometimes extended to seven) through two-round first past the post. Candidates are deemed elected in the first round if they have won over 50% of votes cast and 25% of registered voters. Candidates are qualified for the runoff if they have won at least 12.5% of registered voters or placed second if they don’t meet the first condition. The threshold for the runoff was raised from 10% to 12.5% of registered voters last year, making these elections identical to legislative elections.

These are, possibly, the last cantonal elections. Sarkozy’s territorial reform will merge, by 2014, regional and general councils into a single territorial council whose members, however, will still be elected in cantons which are to be redistricted and redistributed significantly. These are also, and perhaps more importantly, the last elections before the big election in 2012. These elections were either under-the-radar or excessively nationalized.

Turnout in cantonal elections is usually quite healthy, which is because the department benefits from some sense of popular attachment (which is slightly ironic considering how they’re artificial entities) and because they’re most often held along with another election which boosts turnout (often municipal elections, as in 2008 or 2001). 2011 is the first cantonal to be held individually since 1994. Abstention reached a peak at 51-53% in 1988, when it came after a presidential and legislative election.

Turnout reached an historic low, at only 44.3%. Polls show that perhaps up to a plurality of voters voted based on national concerns, which is another way of saying that they voted to kick Nicolas Sarkozy. Here are the results, in metropolitan France, of the first round using the Ministry’s latest inventions in terms of partisan etiquettes. The Ministry of the Interior, which runs elections (incompetently), is in charge of classifying candidates, and it likes to play around with stupid labels. Have a look for yourself:

PS 25.22%
UMP 16.99%
FN 15.66%
Miscellaneous Right (DVD) 9.24%
Europe-Écologie-Les Verts (EELV) 8.42%
PCF 7.71%
Miscellaneous Left (DVG) 4.8%
Majority-New Centre (M-NC) 3.23%
Presidential Majority (M) 2.32%
Left Radicals (PRG) 1.53%
MoDem 1.21%
Others 1.18%
Left Party (PG) 1.03%
Far-Left 0.60%
Regionalists 0.44%
Ecologists 0.38%
Far-Right 0.15%

To make these meaningless numbers mean something, it is more useful to group ’em up into more tangible categories. The parliamentary left has 48.71% of the votes. The Presidential Majority and centre-right has 31.78%. Aside from the fact that I like to hit on the Ministry for their incompetence, their results are meaningless in that no parties ran candidates everywhere. The UMP, for example, ran 1134 candidates – 56% of cantons up.  The MoDem ran in 239 cantons, or only 12% of the cantons up. The FN, for its part, ran 1440 candidates which is 406 fewer than in 2004, but still covering 71% of cantons (Le Monde estimates the FN won an average of 19% where it ran). Somebody better in math than I am would be able to work out, for example, the percentage of the UMP only in the 1134 cantons it ran in. Another comment can be made about the Ministry’s foolish division of the PCF and PG, whose candidates run as part of a wider Left Front (FG) which polled 8.74% overall. Its excuse was that it didn’t want to kill off the very old PCF label. Those wishing to compare should compare to the 2004 results, not 2008 – because these cantons were last elected in 2004.

Now that I’ve vented about the Ministry’s gnomes, some sort of analysis can happen. The election was excessively nationalized, and it resulted in an epic rout for the right which gives its third cantonal rout in a row. It is a rout which is on the verge of making 2004 seem like a good year for the right (it wasn’t), considering the right polled 37.1% back then whereas today it barely scrapes by 30%. It is most definitely a victory for the far-right in an election which isn’t favourable to it, and the FN wins its strongest cantonal election result ever with nearly 16% of the vote. The FN’s rebirth which began in 2010 is certainly an ongoing process.

The left has a nice victory, again, which is something they’re used to in local or regional elections, though its size may be somewhat abated by all the talk of the FN’s strong showing. Both FG and EELV had pleasing performances, which will allow the PCF to maintain its sizable and influential network of local officials and officeholders and allow EELV to gain a stronger foothold in these assemblies where it is traditionally very weak. In the smaller context of its 16% in 2009 and 12% in 2010, its showing may be somewhat disappointing but we must remember that cantonal elections are biased towards rural areas and local candidates or parties with a strong grassroots network (which EELV doesn’t have – yet). The bottom line for EELV is that while these elections weren’t great they weren’t bad or mediocre either.

The MoDem’s 1% showing is certainly worth a chuckle, and shows how far it has fallen since the grand rhetoric of 2007. But it must be noted that they ran in only 12% of cantons, and ended up getting some decent results were it did run. Some of its candidates were further counted as DVD or Majority candidates (or DVG, perhaps). It has a very weak base of local elected officials, which stems in large part from Bayrou’s ability to piss off people and send his few members into other groupings. In general councils, they can’t often get away with Bayrou’s mindless centrist-independent posturing and must either go left or right (often the latter). The few local grassroots it is left with is still able to poll relatively strongly, as is the case with Hérouville-Saint-Clair mayor Rodolphe Thomas (in Calvados) who seems to have built up a personality cult looking at the MoDem’s strong showing in and around Caen.

Finally, all eyes on the FN. The party led by Marine Le Pen enters presidential election 2012 buoyed by a string of shock polls showing her either leading the field or placing a very strong second or third with often over 20% of voting intentions. Remains to be seen, of course, it that lives on for a whole year (you know, a week is a long time in politics and yaddi-yadda). But, however, as of now, the FN is certainly in a very strong position. Working-class voters, lower middle-class suburban/exurban and employees were crucial to Sarkozy’s populist-right winning coalition in 2007. With the recession, scandals and unpopular reforms they’ve found themselves hating Sarkozy. His attempts to go immigrant-baiting or tough on crime haven’t worked, because it doesn’t seem like these voters wish to be fooled again. At the same time, he alienates moderates with such rhetoric. Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric, mixing left-wing economic populism with nationalism and republicanism (which includes defense of laicism and subtle opposition to Islam), is very popular with both working-class voters as well as rural and suburban voters who are traditionally right-wing but deeply alienated from Sarkozy’s style of governance.

Local Results

I’ll post an updated version of my massive cantonal map shortly after the runoff. For now, you can enjoy some interactive maps of the results on La Croix (if you’re a Catholic) or Le Nouvel Observateur (if you’re left-wing). Actually, both sites use the same applet.

The right currently controls about 40% of general councils. It is likely that it will control considerably less than that after the second round. In 2008, the right added only Hautes-Alpes while losing eight departments to the left. The Hautes-Alpes seem safe enough, given that two right-wing gains there by the first round will probably insulate it from any loses in the runoff. The left governs but is in minority in Val-d’Oise, which is probably the right’s best chance to win – but that is a stretch. First round results indicate that while the right will probably gain one, probably two seats it is on track to lose three and possibly four seats. The right may have hoped to gain Corrèze, Chirac’s old stronghold, from its current owner – former PS boss and 2012 candidate François Hollande (who holds a one-seat edge since 2008), but despite a gain in Ussel the right is on track to lose at least two seats which will compensate the left for a first round right-wing pickup in that Ussel canton. The Rural Communist Allier, which was at risk both from the right (which lost it in 2008) and from the PS seems safe for the PCF.

In case of a tie in the election of the president of the general council, the oldest candidate wins. That’s how the right holds the Jura and Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Both of them are likely to go, the Pyrénées-Atlantiques especially. Despite a loss in Auxonne, the PS is slightly favoured in the Côte-d’Or (right wing majority 1) where at least two other seats could compensate for Auxonne. The Aveyron has a one-seat right edge, which got a bit safer with a first round EELV loss in Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance. The left should gain seats in the runoff, but they face a tough fight to wrestle control. The Vienne, which has a one-seat edge for the right as well, should be held especially with a PS seat in Civray looking vulnerable. Justice minister Michel Mercier (centrist) is defending a one-seat majority in the Rhône, where PS hopes for a pickup got a bit tougher with a defeat in Meyzieu (a PS-held seat, going to a UMP-FN runoff) but there should be at least two other seats which could compensate for Meyzieu. The Rhône will be one of the departments to watch. The Loire also seems vulnerable, with the left probably capable of overturning a three-seat majority. However, Dominique Bussereau (UMP)’s hold on the Charente-Maritime will likely be gone with the PS being on a good track in more than enough cantons to squash the right’s two-seat edge. Morbihan is a potential sleeper despite a 10-seat right-wing edge: the left has edged closer with a first-round gain in Gourin and five additional cantons look vulnerable. Maybe not a 50-50 chance, but for a 10-seat majority, it’s damn close. In the Sarthe, finally, the left is looking set to gain control of Fillon’s department.

The PCF should hold Allier, but the PS could very well take the Val-de-Marne away from the PCF after having taken the Seine-Saint-Denis in 2008. The PRG (or, newspaper baron Baylet)’s hold on the Tarn-et-Garonne is safe, as is the PRG hold in Haute-Corse but the PRG has a real chance to take back control of the Hautes-Pyrénées, lost to the PS in 2008.

In a lot of cantons, the behaviour of FN voters where the FN is not qualified will prove crucial. If FN voters largely stay home on Sunday, the game changes to a contest of the better GOTV operation for left or right, and probably means that, overall, the right is slightly less screwed. If the FN voters, however, decide to turn out and vote in significant numbers for the left, then the right is really screwed. Given how 2011 is another “give Sarkozy the boot” year and that FN voters are disproportionately voting on national issues, it is very much possible that FN voters who vote on Sunday will give the left an edge.

The FN has never won more than three seats in a cantonal election. The electoral system, the nature of cantonal elections and other factors all work against it and usually prevent it from winning anything more than a handful of seats. In 2004, the FN only won one seat – in Orange-Est, whose councillor Marie-Claude Bompard has since defected (and is favoured to win reelection). This year, the FN will probably win one or more seats, which will make this a rather successful year for them. The FN is qualified for 264 PS-FN contests, 89 UMP-FN contests, a few three-ways and even some rather epic PCF-FN duels. An Ifop study shows that in 2004, the FN gained on average 10% from one round to another in both PS-FN and UMP-FN duels (while losing 1.7% or so in three-ways). The FN has its eyes on roughly ten seats, almost all of them being PS-FN contests. In Nice, Christian Estrosi’s UMP voters might very well stomach voting for the FN – especially against the FN in Nice-3. In Marseille, the UMP might be going for the FN in two PS-held cantons seeing PS-FN runoffs where the corruption of the local PS administration of Jean-Noël Guérini is a major issue. One of the major FN hopes is in Perpignan-9, where the FN’s Louis Aliot has 34% against a distant 18% for the PS while the UMP has 16%. Bouilly, Aube which had three candidates in the first round – all qualified – the FN came out ahead with 34.6% followed by 33.6% for the PS and 31.9% for the UMP. Le Monde looks at some of the cantons where the FN has a fighting chance.

The FN is strongest in eastern France, a fact as old as the world. The FN came out ahead of all other parties or groupings in the Aisne, Bouches-du-Rhône, Loiret, Marne, Haute-Marne, Oise, Vaucluse and Yonne. The FN takes in a working-class (or urban deprived, populaire areas) electorate as well as a very important lower middle-class, often exurban, electorate. These two groups were crucial components of Sarkozy’s populist-right winning coalition in 2007 and they have deserted the UMP in masse (though that is not new). The lower middle-class electorate, which is touched hard by the economic crisis and the subsequent hit on their incomes and ability to consume, is not necessarily new to the FN’s coalition but it comes and go. It was for Marine’s father in 2002, but not in 2007. In the Bouches-du-Rhône, the corrupt administration of Jean-Noël Guérini (PS) has been a great boost for the FN. The FN is also strong all along the Mediterranean coast (most often not as strong in the uber-wealthy spots, but rather in less wealthy and more traditionally working-class or small business environments), which is an old trend. The FN has also polled well in old working-class areas which are in and out of major economic declines. Steeve Briois, Marine’s right-hand man, polled 35% in Montigny-en-Gohelle which covers part of Hénin-Beaumont. The FN did very well, in the upper 20s/low 30s range in old working-class locales in Moselle most notably Forbach, Stiring-Wendel and Freyming-Merlebach. Vis-a-vis other good years, the FN’s vote in rural conservative areas such as Alsace, Ain or Savoie have declined somewhat. Presumably these voters, concerned but not touched by immigration and criminality, are more supportive of Sarkozy’s policies on those issues.

The FN has broken out to the west of the old Caen-Perpignan line which defines the map of the FN. The aforementioned lower middle-class electorate in the Centre and in the Loire valley up to Nantes came out for the FN here. But the FN has managed to qualify for three runoffs in Bretagne (Pleine-Fougères, Rennes-Le Blosne, Lorient-Nord) and did well in Vendée (Philippe de Villiers’ retirement seems to have helped) and especially Charente-Maritime where the FN’s strong 20% showing in Royan means that Dominique Bussereau (UMP) will face a runoff in Royan-Est.

To be fair, however, in places such as Rennes-Le Blosne the FN is inadvertently the beneficiary of the new election law. The law was designed to cut down on the number of triangulaires (the right has a bad memory of those going back to 1997). But in places such as Le Blosne, where low turnout (and EELV) kept a strong PS from winning outright, a distant second-placed FN inadvertently qualified by merely placing second without necessarily getting 12.5% of registered voters. The right’s structural weakness in a lot of those areas also contributed. But it isn’t to say that the FN’s results there – between 10 and 18% in a lot of the few Breton cantons they ran in – are excellent for them in a region where they often poll like the plague.

EELV polled, in my opinion, rather well in an election where they faced an uphill fight given their lack of strong local networks, local barons and grassroots activism. Sure, they’ve been helped by deals with the PS in a few departments where they’ll get one or two seats out of that. It performed well even against PS opposition in urban areas such as Rennes, Lyon or Grenoble. It has taken the risk of breaking the time-honoured unwritten left-wing custom of republican discipline (second, third placed qualified lefties drop out in favour of the best-placed lefty). It will be interesting to see how they perform in the PS-EELV runoff cantons where EELV is hanging around. Such behaviour might not win Cécile Duflot many friends on the left, but it could help build an image for EELV as an independent party and not a PRG-like useless sidekick to the PS which will drop out for the PS at any rate.

In results of interest, Bernadette Chirac (UMP) won a sixth and final term in the canton of Corrèze but only by a 5% margin and saved herself from a runoff by one vote or so. Michel Mercier, Hervé Morin, Jean-Michel Baylet all won outright. Dominque Bussereau and Dominique Perben will win in the runoff without much trouble.

Looking at interesting results, the first one might surprise – Neuilly-sur-Seine-Nord – the old canton of Sarkozy himself. When he became President in 2007, he was replaced by Marie-Cécile Ménard (UMP) who this year found maverick Neuilly mayor (a thorn in Sarkozy’s side) Jean-Christophe Fromantin on her way. Fromantin won 51.6% against 25.2% for the incumbent endorsed by Sarkozy père et fils. He’ll win by a landslide in the runoff. Down the road from there, in Bourg-la-Reine, the incumbent UMP President of the Hauts-de-Seine CG Patrick Devedjian faces a tough runoff. Devedjian, who is currently in a sort of mini-feud with former ally Sarkozy won 37.3% against 27.7% for the PS who can count on 13% for EELV and 5% for the PCF. Same department, again, Isabelle Balkany (UMP) – the wife of Levallois mayor and Sarko confidante Patrick Balkany – was elected in 2004 in Levallois-Nord but decided to run in the much safer Sud canton of Levallois (chasing out the UMP incumbent and forcing a by-election) yet she might well lose to a DVD there.

Outside the small UMP clique of Sarkoland, another race to watch is Porto-Vecchio (Corse-du-Sud) where regionalist leader Jean-Christophe Angelini – with 45.7% – finds himself the favourite against UMP deputy Camille de Rocca Serra (40%) – in the Rocca Serra clan fiefdom since 1815 no less. Regionalists should also look at Christian Troadec in Carhaix-Plouguer where the regionalist mayor of Carhaix (Troadec) is favoured with 43% against 22% for the PS. Same region, in Vannes-Centre the UMP (and hardcore anti-Sarkozy Villepiniste) mayor of the city, François Goulard is in a tough race to win a cantonal presence (eying the departmental presidency). He took 38.7% against 23.9% for the PS. A Green candidate taking nearly 15% edges the left closer, with DVD (6.9%) and FN (10.7%) votes making the balance. In Amiens-4 Est, orthodox PCF deputy Maxime Gremetz (who is slightly mad to say the least) is in a tough position in a runoff against an incumbent Socialist who won 36.4% against his 26.8%. The official PCF candidate (the moderate PCF Politburo hates Stalinist Gremetz) won 18%. In Nice-14, mayor Christian Estrosi’s wife is in good shape to defeat PS incumbent Paul Cuturello. She took 34% against 29.3% for Cuturello. Former mayor Jacques Peyrat (DVD, ex-FN) won 21.4% but not enough to make the runoff. Peyrat clearly took FN votes, they won only 12%.

Often times, cantonal elections – this series in particular – are interpreted in municipalities as a sort of mid-term election for the incumbent mayors. In 2004, the right had done badly in Nice because then-mayor Jacques Peyrat (ex-FN, now DVD) was unpopular. Now, Estrosi’s UMP is in good shape to reclaim at least two seats (hopes for more got dashed by the FN pipping the UMP for the runoff spot). In Argenteuil, the incumbent PS administration is unpopular – and leaves the UMP on track to win back both of the cantons up this year in town. In the Nord canton, former UMP mayor Georges Mothron (a tough on crime guy) has 35.9% against 19.6% for the EELV candidate with the FN’s 16.7% deciding the race (probably for Mothron). In Metz, incumbent PS mayor Dominique Gros got a narrow second place behind the FN in his Metz-1 canton.

Arguably, the big day – runoffs – are on March 27. Stuff to look for in these runoffs are, first and foremost, the FN’s best hope cantons and whether they can win any of them and if so, how many of them they can win. Looking at these same cantons, track how the first round eliminated vote – be it UMP or leftie – goes and if the UMP>FN vote is particularly important. Secondly, in cantons where the FN is out but strong, absolutely look at how their vote goes – does it have an effect, does it help the left or right? That should tell us lots of interesting things looking ahead to 2012. A few cantons will see civil war runoffs between PS and a Communist or Green. In the latter cases, look at how the right-wing vote might help elect a Green as it happened in Grenoble in 2004 (and almost in Villeurbanne-Centre’s recent by-election). In terms of departments, all eyes on the Rhône and Aveyron which I deem too close to call. The aforementioned interesting cantons will of course be worth watching. Later, the so-called “third round” election of departmental executives can and will see surprises and random rural independents or centrists voting weirdly and throwing all our neat calculations flying out the window. There is also, perhaps, a sleeper department, which nobody really sees switching – which will switch. The Ain was perhaps that sleeper in 2008. Following the runoff, I’ll update my massive cantonal maps (and fix errors on it) and post the updated version to give an overall view of the new picture.

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Posted on March 23, 2011, in France, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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