Election Preview: France Municipal Elections 2014 – Part I

Municipal elections will be held in France on March 23 and 30, 2014. The municipal councils of all 36,681 communes in France will be up for reelection.

How it works: French municipal government

La commune in France

Communes of France

The commune is the lowest echelon of government in France, below the State, the regions and the departments. France has 36,681 communes – 36,552 in metropolitan France and Corsica and 129 in overseas departments and regions. Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, French Polynesia and New Caledonia (overseas collectivities) are also divided into communes, like the rest of France, and they vote at the same time in municipal elections. Only Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthélemy, Wallis-et-Futuna and uninhabited territories (French Southern and Antarctic Lands, Clipperton Island).

France has, by far, the most communes of any EU country: Germany has about 12,000 municipalities, the UK has about 10,5000 civil parishes, Spain and Italy have about 8,100 municipalities. Most French communes are very sparsely populated: 54.3% have less than 500 inhabitants, 73.4% have less than 1,000 inhabitants. Yet, only 14.6% of the French population lives in communes with less than 100,000 people; about half of the population lives in 946 communes (2.6% of all communes). The smallest populated commune, Rochefourchat, has a legal population of one; there are six communes in the Meuse which have no inhabitants: they were destroyed during the Battle of Verdun (1916) and never rebuilt. They have retained a status as communes (officially, communes mortes pour la France), but they are totally uninhabited and administered by a mayor and two deputies nominated by the prefect.

Communes are a Revolutionary creation, dating back to 1789 when the new Revolutionary authorities established about 40,000 communes, largely corresponding to religious parishes. Indeed, almost every single commune in France has a Church (in addition, nowadays, to the obligatory local monument aux morts for the war dead). Until 1870, the State’s policy was to abolish communes with excessively low populations which were no longer viable and creating communes in areas where the original map was problematic (large territory, hamlets blocked by physical features). By the waning days of the Second Empire, municipal mergers (fusions) were unpopular with the local populations, and the Republican opposition promised emancipation for communes. An 1884 law established the main structures of local government, the broad principles of which have remained unchanged to this day. Each commune has a municipal council directly elected by the population and a mayor elected by the municipal council. The 1884 law also established the clause de compétence générale (a legal clause which has allowed communes/departments/regions to intervene in all matters which they can argue to be in the local public interest).

In part because of their long history and Revolutionary heritage, communes are still largely perceived as the base of local democracy and decision-making – a core “republican value”. Citizens, especially in small villages, are very attached to their commune and they have tended to care a great deal about local politics and local democracy (again, particularly in rural areas), much more so than in other countries. Turnout in French municipal elections has been above 60% in every election since World War II; in fact, it was over 70% in every election before 1995 and while 2008 marked an all-time low, turnout was still 65%. Turnout increases linearly as the population of the commune decreases.

The extremely large number of communes in France, combined to successive rural exoduses since the Industrial Revolution which have reduced the populations of thousands of small rural communes, has made local governance problematic. Successive governments since the 1890s, and particularly since 1945, have struggled to come up with solutions to this fundamental challenge to local democracy. Given that communes, by and large, are hostile to mergers with larger (more viable) communes; most governments since the 1890s have usually shied away from promoting ambitious municipal merger schemes. The main exception to that tradition came in 1971, with the Marcellin law (after interior minister Raymond Marcellin), which sought to promote municipal mergers. Individual prefects were instructed to come up with merger plans, which were to be approved by municipal councils. These could either be full mergers, in which one commune would disappear entirely within another, or retain some individual autonomy (for example, a delegated mayor and a decentralized town hall providing vital records) as a commune associée (associated commune). The Marcellin law was a failure: individual prefects acted differently (either proposing vast mergers, or limited and partial mergers depending on the region) and created a mess, and the associated commune status was unattractive. Between 1971 and 2009, only 1,100 communes effectively disappeared (most in the 1970s). There are currently 712 associated communes. A good number of the original mergers and associations were later dissolved, with old communes regaining their independence.

The 2010 Sarkozy reform tried to encourage municipal mergers and effectively replaced the moribund Marcellin law’s associated communes with the status of commune nouvelle (new communes) which is pretty much the same thing as associated communes (although slightly closer to a full merger) with the guidelines for their creations not all that different from the ones in the Marcellin law. Its application has been very limited: there are only 17 fewer communes in 2014 than in 2008.

The intercommunalité (EPCI)

Map of EPCI in France as of Jan. 1, 2014 (source: collectivites-locales.gouv.fr)

Given the failure of the amalgamation schemes and the general impracticality of merging communes, governments have been forced to consider other structures to make local governance viable. The solution has been intercommunal cooperation, which began taking its current form rapid post-war urban/suburban expansion and rural depopulation in the 1960s. Intercommunal cooperation takes two distinct, but overlapping and co-existing, forms: loose “associative” cooperation to provide certain public services or utilities (water, electricity, waste management, school transportation) or more cohesive “federative” cooperation which has more powers, responsibilities and more ambitious aims including economic development.

The structure of intercommunal cooperation is thus complex, but at the same time increasingly important. Intercommunal structures have gained more and more powers and financial resources, at the expense of communes but also from departments, regions and the State. Intercommunal cooperation structures are known as établissements publics de coopération intercommunale (EPCI) or intercommunalité.

Communes or EPCI are responsible for: elementary schools (buildings, equipment), culture (shared power with the State and departments/regions), youth (nurseries, recreation centres), sports (equipment and subsidies), tourism, local urban policy/planning, advice and approval for territorial planning, environment (shared power over water, protected zones; waste management, water sanitation and distribution), local marinas, communal roads, urban transportation/public transit, school transportation, management of local public/social housing, municipal police forces (except Paris), traffic and parking.

The oldest form of intercommunal cooperation is the very loose “associative” form whereby communes – but also other territorial collectivities (departments, regions) – join together to provide one or more public services or utilities. The first such form of intercommunal cooperation was created in 1890, expanded in 1935 and 1959. These EPCI lacking fiscal autonomy (they rely on financial contributions from members) include 8,979 Syndicat intercommunal à vocation unique (Sivu, providing only one service), 3,187 Syndicats mixtes (associating different territorial collectivities, intended as a forum for different territorial collectivities and actors to cooperate amongst themselves), 1,233 Syndicat intercommunal à vocations multiples (Sivom, providing more than one service) and 9 Pôles métropolitains (a 2010 creation to encourage cooperation between different agglomerations). These types of EPCI are losing their attractiveness; the number of syndicates has declined from about 15,300 in 2010 to 13,400 in 2014.

Of far greater importance are the EPCI with fiscal autonomy, the most common, widespread and important form of intercommunal cooperation in France. In 2014, there are 2,145 such EPCI grouping 36,614 communes in metro France and the four DOMs (excluding Mayotte). 49 communes outside Paris and Mayotte remain ‘isolated’ – that is, not a member of any EPCI, but of those, 41 are in the petite couronne outside Paris (where a major reform of intercommunal government is in the works) and four are islands with no legal obligation to join an EPCI. Straightforward so far? It isn’t supposed to be – there are many different types of EPCI with fiscal autonomy in France.

The first intercommunalité structure was the district, created in 1959 (abolished in 1999 and phased out by 2002), followed by the more ambitious communautés urbaines (urban communities, CU) in 1966. In 1992, a law created the communautés de communes (community of communes, CC). The 1999 Chevènement law beefed up the responsibilities of urban communities and the CC, abolished the failed structures, and created a new kind of structure: communautés d’agglomeration (agglomeration communities, CA). The 2010 Sarkozy reform set out to clean up and rationalize the intercommunal structure – forcing all communes in metro France (with Parisian and insular exceptions) to join an EPCI, created a fifth structure: the metropolis (métropole), for very large urban areas.

The métropole (metropolis) – only one exists thus far (Métropole Nice Côte d’Azur) – is limited to large urban areas; legally, it is reserved for territories with a population of over 500,000 and/or the four original urban communities created in 1966. This meant that seven current urban communities are eligible to gain the metropolis status. The component communes transfer some of their powers to the metropolis. These responsibilities include social, cultural and economic development; urban planning and policy; management of local social housing plans; management of public services (sanitation, water, cemeteries, slaughterhouses); environmental policies including recycling and air pollution reduction. The department transfers responsibilities such as departmental roads and school transportation, with the possibility of the metropolis gaining full powers over social action, middle schools and other services from the department. The region and the State may also devolve powers to the metropolis.

A January 2014 law (the loi du 27 janvier 2014 de modernisation de l’action publique territoriale et d’affirmation des métropoles) will significantly expand and transform the metropolis status. On January 1, 2015; all EPCI with a population over 400,000 inhabitants in an urban area of over 650,000 people will be transformed by decree into metropolises (Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lille, Nantes, Nice, Rennes, Rouen, Strasbourg, Toulouse). That same day, the CU of Lyon will be transformed into the Métropole de Lyon, which will replace the department of the Rhône (and assume all departmental powers) in its territory. In 2016, the Métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence will be created (in the face of local opposition), uniting 92 communes representing 93% of the Bouches-du-Rhône’s population. In 2016, the Métropole du Grand Paris, uniting Paris and the three departments of the petite couronne, will be created; its legal responsibilities will be similar to that of a CU (spatial planning, housing, urban policy, economic/social/cultural development, environment, quality of life).

There are 15 Urban Communities (Communauté urbaine, CU). The urban communities were created in 1966, meant to cover the largest urban areas. Four CU were created by the law in 1966 (Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux, Strasbourg), today there are 15 CUs in France (Lyon, Lille, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes, Strasbourg, Nancy, Brest, Dunkerque, Le Mans, Arras, Creusot-Montceau, Cherbourg, Alençon). Although the 1999 Chevènement law reserved the CU status to territories with a population over 500,000; urban communities created before that date have been allowed to retain their status, so 9 of the 15 CUs have a population under 500,000 – the smallest CU, Alençon, has only 48.7k people. The 2010 reform, creating the metropolis, lowered the threshold for the creation of new CUs to 450,000.

Every CU has mandatory powers, transferred from the component communes. These powers are: social, cultural and economic development; urban planning and policies; public transit; management of social housing; management of public services (sanitation, water, cemeteries, slaughterhouses); and environmental policies including recycling and air pollution reduction. Communes may devolve further powers to the CUs, while they may gain some power over social action from the department.

The Agglomeration Communities (Communauté d’agglomération, CA) – of which there are 222 in 2014 – were created by the Chevènement law in 1999 for urban areas including medium or large cities. According to the law, CAs must have a population of over 50,000 with at least one commune of at least 15,000 inhabitants (unless the CA includes the capital and/or largest city of a department). However, the law allowed for the transformation of districts, communauté de villes (a failed scheme introduced in 1992, abolished in 1999) or CCs into CAs even if they did not meet the population requirements. Since 2010, the threshold for the creation of a CA, if it includes the department’s capital (chef-lieu) was reduced to 30,000. The CA scheme has proven to be extremely popular, from 50 CAs in 2000 there are now 222.

Every CA has powers, transferred from the communes, over social, cultural and economic development; urban planning and policies; social housing; and public transit. Each CA must also choose 3 of 6 additional powers from the following powers: road maintenance, sanitation, water, environmental protection, social action in the community’s interest, and cultural/sports equipment. Communes may decide to devolve other powers to the CA. Furthermore, the CA may decide to define additional powers which it judges to be in the community’s interest.

The Community of Communes (Communautés de communes, CC), created in 1992 for rural areas, are the loosest type of EPCI with fiscal autonomy. The CC has been extremely popular and they have, slowly and incompletely, replaced Sivu or Sivom structures; although since 2010, the number of CC has declined significantly (from 2,409 to 1,903) as a result of the mergers of some smaller CCs by prefectural decree or their transformation into CAs. CCs have two main advantages for small rural communes, which remain very closely attached to the “republican traditions” of communal independence and local democracy. Firstly, they allow them to provide local services in cooperation with neighboring communes. Secondly, the CCs are a form of territorial organization which allows them to maintain their independence vis-à-vis larger urban areas (CAs) which would like to gobble them up. There are 1,903 CCs currently.

The CCs have two mandatory powers transferred from the communes: economic development and spatial planning. They must also choose one power from the following six ‘options’: environmental protection, housing policy, road maintenance, construction and management of preschools, elementary school, cultural and sport equipment, social action in the community’s interest, and sanitation.

There are four Syndicates of New Agglomerations (Syndicat d’agglomération nouvelle, SAN), created in 1983 but being phased out. The SAN were meant to cover specifically new towns (villes nouvelles) such as Cergy-Pontoise, Marne-la-Vallée, Sénart or Ouest Provence (Rives de l’Étang de Berre). The 1999 law gradually phased them out, from a maximum of 9 SAN in 2000 there are now only four left, 3 of them in the Paris region. Many former SAN have become CAs, the remaining 4 SAN are expected to do likewise.

Although the State and prefects in each department have often played a large role in spearheading the EPCI, they cannot usually unilaterally force any commune to join an EPCI. With some exceptions, the final decision for joining an EPCI rests with individual communes. Mayors, especially those from thinly populated rural communes, remain closely attached to the notion of communal independence and many respond unfavourably to decisions and instructions from above. In urban areas, political and parochial disputes have traditionally tended to hamper the development of cohesive and rational EPCI – suburban communes suspicious of domination of the larger urban commune, urban communes not wanting to subsidize suburban communes and political disputes (left-wing mayors not wanting to be in an EPCI with right-wing mayors, and vice-versa).

EPCI financing

Communes and intercommunalities have three main sources of funding: taxes (about the three-fifths of their revenues), unconditional transfers and grants from the State and loans.

The main local direct taxes are the housing tax (taxe d’habitation), the land value taxes (taxe sur le foncier bâtitaxe sur le foncier non bâti) and the cotisation foncière des entreprises (CFE). Communes and the five types of EPCI outlined above are said to be fiscally autonomous. While they are not allowed to create or levy taxes on their own (the taxes are created and collected by the State) they have the power to set the rates for local taxes. Fiscal autonomy, however, is conditioned by the State which has set various guidelines, limits or rules for local taxation.

The 2010 reform introduced a major, and rather controversial, change to local finances. The professional or business tax (taxe professionnelle, TP) was abolished and replaced, partially, by the Territorial Economic Contribution (contribution économique territoriale, CET). The TP was a tax paid by every business/corporation and was the largest single source of revenue for all territorial collectivities, which set the local rate. Arguing that the TP was hindering the country’s economic competitiveness, Sarkozy abolished the TP. It was replaced, but only partially, by the new CET.

The CET is the sum of two taxes paid by businesses/corporations: the cotisation foncière des entreprises (CFE) which is a land value tax (taxe foncière) and the cotisation sur la valeur ajoutée des entreprises (CVAE) which is a value added tax based on a businesses’ annual turnover. The entirety of the CFE is directed by the communes and EPCIs, who have retained the right to set the local rate. The CVAE, whose rate is set by the State, and is distributed between the region (25%), department (48.5%) and communes/EPCI (26.5%). The replacement of the TP by the CET meant that territorial collectivities not only lost a major source of revenue but also a good deal of their fiscal autonomy. Nevertheless, the State promised to fully compensate territorial collectivities for any loses incurred by the transition. Since the CET rakes in less revenue than the TP, new taxes or fiscal transfers (from the State or between territorial collectivities) have been created to make up the difference. One of those new taxes is the imposition forfaitaire sur les entreprises de réseaux (IFER), a tax on energy equipments (wind turbines, electricity generating plants, electrical transformers etc). The IFER is split between all territorial collectivities.

There are two (and a half) kinds of financing/funding for EPCIs with fiscal autonomy. The ‘Additional taxation’ (régime de la fiscalité additionnelle) is the initial and basic system, which applies for 855 CCs and 2 CUs created before 1999 which haven’t switched to the other system. The EPCI here has the power to set intercommunal tax rates (for the four local taxes: housing tax, land value taxes, CFE) but these tax rates are ‘additional’ to the local tax rates set by the component communes. The intercommunal tax rate in effect sets a ‘ceiling’ on the tax rate for each commune, but this system allows for variations in the tax rates (especially the CFE) between communes in the same EPCI. The communal fraction of the CVAE is divided between the intercommunality and the communes. Some CCs may choose a  Fiscalité professionnelle de zone (FPZ) scheme, which creates economic activity zones (ZAE) within the territory of the EPCI which will have a single, uniform intercommunal CFE rate (all transferred to the EPCI). Businesses located within the ZAE will pay the intercommunal CFE, but business located outside a ZAE will pay different tax rates depending on the commune.

The other system is the ‘Unique professional taxation’ (régime de la fiscalité professionnelle unique, FPU), which is mandatory since 1999 for all CAs, SAN and since 2010 for the new metropolises. The FPU is also mandatory for all CUs created after 1999 and is automatically granted to those created before 1999 unless they decide otherwise. 13 of the 15 CUs have chose the FPU system, as have 1,048 CCs. Under the FPU system, only the intercommunality decides on the CFE rate and it receives the entirety of the CFE’s revenues (and all of the communal fraction of the CVAE). Therefore, communes member of an EPCI which has opted for the FPU do not receive any part of the CFE or CVAE. The EPCI still sets ‘additional’ tax rates on the three other taxes.

EPCI governance

Each EPCI with fiscal autonomy (metropolis, CU, CA, CC, SAN) has a deliberative assembly, the Conseil communautaire or community council, which has a similar role to a municipal council. Each member-commune is represented in the community council proportionally to its population, with each commune holding at least one seat. In addition, no single commune may hold over half of the seats in the community council. All community councillors are municipal councillors or mayors.

Each community council elects a president (in addition to vice-presidents) which has a role similar to a mayor, except for the whole EPCI. EPCI executives form a “loophole” in the current regulations concerning the cumul des mandats, which means that most presidents of EPCIs tend to be the mayor of the largest commune in the EPCI (or another large town in the same EPCI), provided that the largest commune and the EPCI are of the same political ‘colour’.

In the past, all community councillors were elected by the respective municipal councils – which meant that the opposition group(s) in any commune were almost always excluded from the community council and whole delegations from a commune represented the governing majority. Given the significant and ever-increasing powers of EPCIs, their management by unelected bodies was often criticized and weakened their democratic legitimacy.

In 2014, community councillors will be elected semi-directly in communes with over 1,000 inhabitants. The full workings will be addressed in the next section.

Municipal elections: Electoral systems

Municipal councils are elected for a six-year term.

All French and EU citizens, aged over 18 with full civic and political rights, may register to vote. Since 2001, EU citizens are allowed to vote granted that they have resided in the commune for the past six months and/or pay local taxes. Although EU citizens are allowed to run for office and serve as municipal councillors, they are constitutionally banned from becoming mayors or assistants to the mayor/deputy mayors (adjoints au maire).

Unlike in some other EU countries (Scandinavia, Ireland, Benelux etc), resident non-EU foreigners are not allowed to vote in local elections in France. The extension of voting rights in local elections to non-EU foreign citizens has been a matter of hot political debate for years, and it returned to the spotlight during and after the 2012 presidential campaign. François Hollande promised to extend voting rights to foreigners in his presidential campaign, but since the left lacks the required majority in both houses of Parliament to affect such constitutional change, it has been dropped from the government’s agenda for constitutional reform.

Each commune is governed by a directly-elected municipal council, whose size varies in proportion to the population of the commune.

Population Seats
1-99 7
100-499 11
500-1,499 15
1,500-2,499 19
2,500-3,499 23
3,500-4,999 27
5,000-9,999 29
10,000-19,999 33
20,000-29,999 35
30,000-39,999 39
40,000-49,999 43
50,000-59,999 45
60,000-79,999 49
80,000-99,999 53
100,000-149,999 55
150,000-199,999 59
200,000-249,999 61
250,000-299,999 65
300,000+ 69
Lyon 73
Marseille 101
Paris 163

The mayor is elected by the municipal council. In the first and second rounds, a mayoral candidate must win an absolute majority of valid votes. In the third round, a plurality is sufficient. In all communes, a mayor also has one or more adjoints (deputies).

Electoral system in communes with over 1,000 inhabitants except Paris, Lyon and Marseille

Municipal councillors are elected by a two-round semi-proportional system with closed lists. The commune forms a single ‘constituency’, it is not further subdivided into any sections. Since 2000, lists must respect gender parity – this means that lists must alternate between men and women. This system, between 1983 and 2013, applied to communes with a population over 3,500; it was extended by the 2013 Valls law to all communes with over 1,000 inhabitants.

A list must obtain an absolute majority of valid votes (50%+1) and 25% of registered voters to win by the first round. If no list meets this requirement, a second round is organized one week later. All lists which have won over 10% of valid votes are qualified for the runoff. Lists which have obtained between 5% and 10% of the valid votes are allowed to merge (fusionner) with a qualified list for the runoff, which will change the ordering of candidates on that qualified list. A list which is qualified for the runoff may nevertheless choose to drop out or merge with another list. In the second round, a plurality of the votes is enough to win.

The list winning the most vote automatically wins half of all seats in the municipal council, rounded up to the nearest whole number if necessary. The remaining half of the seats are attributed proportionally to all lists which have won over 5% of valid votes using the highest averages method. Therefore, the winning list not only receives a huge majority bonus, it also receives a good share of the other half of the seats (proportional to its vote share).

Obviously, the result is that whichever list wins the election – even if it is by a single vote and/or with something like 35% of the vote – will have a huge super-majority in the municipal council. For example, in Pau in 2008, the winning list won 39% of the vote and 71% of the seats.

The mayor often tends to be the top candidate of the winning list.

Electoral system in communes with less than 1,000 inhabitants

Municipal councillors are elected by majority at-large voting (also called bloc voting or multiple non-transferable vote, MNTV). Gender parity laws do not apply.

These elections still feature lists of candidates, although lists are not mandatory. However, unlike in larger communes where the lists are closed, in these communes voters will vote for individuals (they have as many votes as there are seats) and panachage is allowed – voters may strike off the name of a candidate on a list, or they may reorder candidates on a list. Until 2013, write-ins for other citizens who were not candidates were valid, and the vote remains valid even if there are more or less names on the ballot than there are seats in the municipal council. Votes are then counted by each individual candidate rather than by lists.

Since 2013, candidates must declare their candidacy to the préfecture two weeks and a half before the election. If the number of candidates declared for the first round is less than the number of seats to be filled, new candidacies may be declared on the Tuesday before the second round.

Candidates are elected in the first round if they have won an absolute majority of valid votes (50%+1) and 25% of registered voters. If not all seats are filled by the first round, the remaining seats are filled in a second round a week later. In the second round, a plurality suffices. Studies have shown that the actual use of ‘panachage’ by voters is extremely limited.

Paris, Lyon and Marseille

Arrondissements of Paris (source: Wikipedia)

The three largest cities in France have a special electoral system, adopted in 1982 with the so-called ‘PLM law’. Unlike other communes with over 1,000 inhabitants, the commune as a whole does not form a single ‘constituency’. Rather, these cities are subdivided into de facto constituencies. Paris has 20 arrondissements, Lyon has 9 arrondissements while Marseille has 8 sectors each made up of two arrondissements.

The election is played in each individual arrondissement/sector, with the same system as in other communes with over 1,000 inhabitants.

Each arrondissement or sector has a local council with a variable number of seats. In turn, the municipal council is composed of representatives from each arrondissement/sector, whose number of seats on the municipal council is roughly half the seats in their arrondissement/sector council. The first name(s) elected on each list in each arrondissement/sector will sit in the municipal council.

Each arrondissement or sector also has a mayor (maire d’arrondissement/secteur), and the arrondissements/sectors have limited autonomy and manage a small budget given by the city-wide municipal government.

In Paris, there are a total of 354 conseillers d’arrondissement, with a minimum of 10 seats in each arrondissement’s council. The 2013 Valls law redistributed the number of conseillers de Paris between each arrondissement, with the overrepresented arrondissements with a small population losing seats while the underrepresented arrondissements gained seats. The overall relation between the population and the number of councillors for each arrondissement is now far more equal.

Arrondissements of Lyon (source: Wikipedia)

In Lyon, there are a total of 148 conseillers d’arrondissement, again with a minimum of 10 seats for the least populated arrondissements (arrdt. 1, 2, 4). The municipal council has 73 seats, with the least populated arrondissement (arrdt. 1) holding four seats and the two most populated (arrdt. 3 and 8) with 12 seats.

Marseille has 16 municipal arrondissements, but unlike in Lyon or Paris they serve no administrative role. Elections, instead, are held in eight sectors which are made up of two arrondissements each. Each sector has a local council, for a total of 202 sectoral councillors in the entire city. The city council has 101 seats.

Therefore, to summarize, there are no city-wide municipal elections with a single list in Paris, Lyon or Marseille. There are, instead, elections in each arrondissements/sector which decide the city council. You could compare this system to the electoral college in the United States, with some differences.

Unlike the electoral college, the individual elections in each administrative division does not give a WTA result, although each arrondissement/sector’s delegation to the city council will be heavily dominated by whichever list won the election in that arrondissement/sector. If a list was to win every single arrondissement or sector, it would have a governing majority comparable to governing majorities in other French cities. However, because of the PLM law, there is a small chance that no single list could win an absolute majority. Furthermore, if the election is close and the main rivals each win roughly the same number of arrondissements/sectors, it is quite likely that whoever wins will have only a thin absolute majority on the council (this is currently the case in Marseille, with 51 seats for the mayor’s majority against 49 for the left and one for the FN).

Sectors of Marseille (source: Wikipedia)

Like in the United States, the PLM system means that one party’s lists may win the most votes in the city as a whole but still win less seats than some other list on the city council. This has happened in the past, most famously in Marseille in 1983 when Gaston Defferre lost the popular vote but held a majority on city council because he had, as interior minister, gerrymandered the sectors in such a way to win reelection. The right-wing government under Jacques Chirac changed the sector map in Marseille to what it currently is in 1987.

Electoral system for intercommunal councillors

For the first time this year, some intercommunal councillors who sit in the Conseil communautaire will be elected semi-directly by voters. In communes with more than 1,000 inhabitants, those who will serve on community councils will be elected from party lists based on the result of the party lists in the decisive round (where one list wins) in the commune. Ballots (for each individual list) will include, on the right hand side, a list of candidates for the community council which are drawn from the list of candidates for the municipal council. There are as many candidates are there are seats – with one additional candidate if there are less than five seats, and two additional candidates if there are more than five seats. All candidates in the first quarter of the list for the municipal council must be on the list for the community council, in the same order; all candidates for community council must be included in the first three-fifths of the list for the municipal council. Seats are distributed based on the results of the election, using the electoral system for communes with over 1,000 inhabitants.

In communes with less than 1,000 inhabitants, intercommunal councillors will still be elected indirectly with seats being attributed to the mayor, and, if more seats are to be filled to his/her adjoints.

This year, due to legal changes complicating matters in small towns, 64 communes – all but one with less than 1,000 inhabitants – have no declared candidates for the first round.

Local and national dynamics in municipal elections

Municipal elections in France obey both local and national dynamics.

In small towns – certainly all those who will still vote under the majority at-large system this year but many of the towns with over 1,000 inhabitants which used to vote under that system – local politics is local, with little to no national influence. One author, using an American term, used the idea of ‘ambiguous consensus’ to describe the form which local politics take in those communities – indeed, governance there is consensual, pragmatic and non-partisan. Most mayors in those communes do not have a political etiquette, and if they do, it hardly means anything: their governing team may include people with opposite political sympathies. Because governing those small towns does not require full-time politicians, a lot of small town mayors and councillors are ‘regular’ citizens working another job, in addition to their local political responsibilities. In many cases, there is no opposition to the incumbent mayor and his/her list; certainly the electoral system in small towns makes the vote very personal and not remotely political. But even in a lot of the small towns with over 1,000 inhabitants which will vote for party lists this year, there is little to no partisan competition: lists – assuming there is more than one (which is not always the case) – are non-partisan and focus solely on local issues and it’s foolish to assign partisan labels to them. But that hasn’t stopped the Ministry of the Interior, in its infinite wisdom.

Therefore, for the sake of political analysis, when reading municipal elections, attention generally focuses on the 260 or so communes with a population with over 30,000 – with attention given to smaller communes if they have major candidates, symbolic importance to national politics or are of human interest. In those major towns and cities, municipal elections follow local and national dynamics, as research has shown.

Local factors

Firstly, local issues – and local factors, such as the personality and popularity of individual candidates or the local partisan/political climate (if distinct from the national climate) – play a major role in municipal elections, even in these larger communes.

In general, mayors tend to be fairly well regarded by the majority of the population and optimism in the direction of the town/city is generally far higher than optimism (or lack thereof) for the direction of the country. According to an Ipsos poll in late February 2014 in communes with a population over 25,000; 71% of respondents, on average, declared that they were satisfied with their mayor. Another Ipsos poll just out on March 20 shows that 64% of voters say that their municipal government has done a good or excellent job. Unless they’re caught with the hands in the marmalade or are particularly incompetent, it’s harder for a mayor to be widely disliked (like many national politicians are) because they have less powers, their actions generally receive less media attention (outside their town) and mayors often strive to be consensual rather than polarizing. Furthermore, given the tradition of the cumul des mandats in France, a lot of mayors are also parliamentarians, so they have the chance to favour their hometown and shower it with national funding and favours.

It is also quite telling that in polls, this year like in 2008, voters tell pollsters that they will vote firstly based on local issues. According to an Ifop poll recently released, 69% will vote mainly based on local considerations. 20% will vote primarily to punish the government, and only 7% will vote primarily to support the government. A CSA poll reported quasi-identical numbers: 65%, 19% and 5% respectively.

This year, according to polls, the most important issues for voters are local taxes (cited by about 50%), environment/quality of life, criminality/safety, economic development/jobs and transportation. According to CSA’s poll, issues such as criminality, parking, immigration, housing and pollution are far more important in large towns (pop 30,000+) than in small towns; in the smallest towns (pop <1000), those issues hardly figure at all while connectivity/broadband access is rather significant. At the same time, issues such as taxes, transparency and economic development are relevant across the board. There are also clear partisan dimensions in those issues, obviously; criminality, immigration are priorities for right-wing and far-right voters, but are of lesser importance for left-wing voters, who tend to be more concerned with issues such as housing and transportation.

In Les élections municipales en France (2001, published by La documentation française), Pierre Martin showed that, with national and partisan trends controlled, there existed a clear advantage for an incumbent mayor at the end of his/her first term in office. This is similar to the ‘sophomore surge’ for one-term US congressmen seeking reelection for the first time. The advantage after two or more terms in office is progressively eliminated, and after several terms in office, many mayors are threatened by weariness of voters and their own teams. However, while almost all ‘freshmen’ mayors receive a boost at their first reelection, the phenomenon of weariness does not effect them all in the same way: different mayors and administrations may tire far more quickly than others, some mayors – even in large cities – can manage to build very solid bases which resist well to weariness. 

Local factors also explain individual results when the election is analyzed through national lenses. They explain, for example, why a certain town – based on presidential results – which is quantitatively more likely to switch sides didn’t do so, while another town, quantitatively less likely to switch sides, did so. They also explain why some towns went against the national trend in a given year. Finally, they explain why towns generally unfavourable to one political side in national elections may be governed – for quite some time – by that same political side. For example, the city of Bordeaux has leaned to the left in the most recent nationwide elections, but it has been a municipal right-wing stronghold since 1947. Toulouse, governed by the right between 1971 and 2008 despite voting for the left in nationwide elections for most of the time, is also often cited as an example of such a phenomenon.

National factors

Municipal elections in France since 1959: party control of communes of over 30,000 inhabitants (at time of election, in %)

Municipal elections in France since 1959: party control of communes of over 30,000 inhabitants (at time of election, in %)

It’s also clear that local factors can’t explain everything. Municipal elections in France, unlike in many other countries, are organized on the same day across the entire territory of the republic, which make them a particularly good occasion for voters less interested by local issues to show their opposition (more often than not, because dissatisfaction is a better mobilizer than satisfaction) to the national government. In a way, municipal elections may be interpreted like midterm elections – generally more difficult for the governing party, even if it is not overly unpopular, and with a potential to be particularly bloody for the governing party if it is clearly unpopular. That being said, regional, European and cantonal elections in France are also similar to midterm elections, and in the case of regional and European elections perhaps even more so than les municipales since a lot of voters in those elections aren’t aware of regional/European issues and vote primarily based on national issues.

The idea of municipal elections being midterms holds true since 1947 when the results are taken only through national lenses (in the detail, looking at individual towns, it is less useful). In 1977, the incumbent right-wing government of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Prime Minister Raymond Barre was unpopular and the economy in bad shape. The left swept municipal elections that year, gaining 57 communes with over 30,000 inhabitants. In 1983, the economy was still in the dump, cards were reversed: the left was now in power, with President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy. The right swept municipal elections in 1983, gaining 35 communes with over 30,000 inhabitants. The most recent municipal elections, in 2008, also saw a significant swing to the left, one year after Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory. After 2008, the left controlled 57.7% of communes with over 30,000 inhabitants, up from 44.5% in 2001.

These were the most extreme cases of major nationwide waves against the governing party in municipal elections. In 1959, 1965, 1971, 1989 and 1995, the incumbent government was less unpopular and therefore the results were more mixed; although on the whole, the governing party didn’t do as well as in the last national elections – 1959, for example, saw a strong performance by the Communists (PCF) just one year after the PCF was badly trounced in the first elections of the Fifth Republic.

Historically, turnout also shifted depending on the national mood. Until turnout began declining, seemingly irreversibly, after 1989, turnout in municipal elections varied based on the unpopularity of the government. In 1977 and 1983, the two classic anti-government waves, turnout was very high: 78.9% and 78.4% – compared to 75.2% in 1971 and 72.8% in 1989. In those cases, the unpopularity of the government strongly mobilized the opposition electorate to vote against the government. In 1971 and 1989, when the government parties did fairly well, the opposition’s voters were less motivated to turn out. Since 1989, however, municipal turnout has declined one election after another. Even 2001 and 2008, which saw significant anti-government movements, saw turnout decline from the previous municipal election.

Dynamics of municipal elections

National factors cannot explain everything in French municipal politics. There are particular political and partisan dynamics or phenomenons in municipal elections which are fairly unique to municipal elections themselves. These include: the tradition of municipal communism, the survival of anti-communist socialist-centrist alliances until 1977, the dynamics of first round left-wing unity since 1977 and the weakness of Gaullism in local politics until 1971/1983.

Municipal government in several communes in France, especially Paris’ working-class suburbs in the petite couronne but also many other towns throughout the country, has been marked since 1935 (or 1945) by the tradition of ‘municipal communism’ (le communisme municipal). Indeed, in those solidly left-wing and historically proletarian communes, the PCF established itself as the dominant party in local government in 1935 or 1945 (in isolated cases, such as Bobigny or Saint-Denis, in 1925). From the standpoint of urban politics and social policy, municipal communism is a rather important historical phenomenon. In power, communist municipalities implemented social policies aimed at the general welfare (especially that of the working-class) and the promotion of social, cultural and recreational infrastructure. Communist municipal governments in suburban Paris built social housing, theaters, summer camps, pools, recreation centres or local health dispensaries. Communist mayors were also local administrators faced with numerous contradictions stemming from the PCF’s theoretical positions, notably opposition to a ‘bourgeois state’. On the ground, with their powers constrained at the outset by hostility from the State, they were forced to be pragmatic. For example, in his study of rural communism in the interwar Limousin, Laird Boswell found that nascent PCF administrations in those cash-strapped villages were often quite conservative fiscally, much to the dismay of revolutionaries in their ranks. With limited resources and government hostility, they were forced to govern very pragmatically.

After 1945, 1977 was the high point of municipal communism, as this interactive feature in Le Monde shows. In the petite couronne, the PCF was dominant. In la province, the PCF held the town halls of Reims, Le Havre, Saint-Étienne, Le Mans, Nîmes and Amiens. Today, it retains control of a significant number of communes in the petite couronne, but faces an increasingly hungry Socialist Party (PS), which in 2008 and again in 2014 ran candidates against PCF incumbents. The PCF controls no major city (100,000+ inhabitants) outside the Parisian suburbs; Le Havre was lost in 1995 and Nîmes lost in 2001 (after gaining it back in 1995).

Against the Communist threat, local Socialists in the past responded by forming anti-communist coalitions with centrist and non-Gaullist right-wing parties. The most famous of these socialo-centriste coalition was Gaston Defferre, the Socialist mayor of Marseille (1953-1986) who governed against the PCF until his last term (1983-1986). But while Defferre is the most emblematic of such Socialist-centrist coalitions, it was not unique to Marseille: such coalitions existed at one time or another in Lille, Toulouse, Roubaix, Limoges, Arras and Besançon. These municipal alliances managed to survive after the 1960s, running in contradiction to the national Socialist Party’s strategy of national alliances with the left. In fact, socialist-centrist coalitions, while increasingly less commonplace, remained fairly widespread up until 1977 – even if the PS and PCF had signed a programme commun in 1972. Now, such alliances are a thing of the past; but the tradition may still rear its head: in 1989, the PS mayor of Angers was excluded from the PS for sealing a formal alliance with the opposition centrist CDS while in 2008, a number of PS mayors (notably François Rebsamen in Dijon) were supported by François Bayrou’s MoDem by the first round.

Since 1977, on the left, the tradition has been first round unity – l’union de la gauche (union of the left). Although the electoral system in place since 1983 makes it possible for smaller parties to safely run a list in the first round in the expectation of merging with a larger list for the runoff to obtain seats on council, there is a strong tradition of first round unity – the PS, PCF and small left-wing parties including the Greens and Left Radicals (MRG/PRG). Since 1977, in most towns, the PS and PCF (and smaller parties, oftentimes) have run a common list by the first round. The PRG, which learned a few times (most recently in 1995) that it is worthless without stronger allies, almost always invariably allies with the PS by the first round. Outside of a few cities where relations between the PS and PCF may be poor, the PCF has traditionally allied with the PS by the first round. For example, the PCF ran allied with the PS by the first round in Marseille in every election since 1983. In Paris, the PS and PCF have been united in the first round since 1977. The Greens may sometimes want to show independence from the PS, knowing that they can scare the PS a bit in some towns, but in a lot of cases, again, the Greens join l’union de la gauche in the first round.

On the right, there has been a similar tradition of first round unity, although it is sometimes not as strict and generally more prone to dissidence. Prior to the creation of the single party of the right, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in 2002, the two main parties of the right – the Rally for the Republic (RPR) and Union for French Democracy (UDF) – usually ran common lists by the first round, with a few cases of so-called ‘primaries’ (first round competition between RPR and UDF) – for example, Lyon in 1995.

Another historical factor worth noting is the weakness of Gaullism in local politics after 1958. Although Charles de Gaulle’s parties, the UNR/UDR, became dominant in national politics (and hegemonic on the right) after 1962, the UNR/UDR was quite weak in local government until 1971, if not 1983. For example, in 1959, one year after de Gaulle’s triumphant return, the UNR’s assault on ‘traditional’ parties of the right (moderates, CNI) and centre (MRP) failed badly, with the UNR holding only 15% of communes with a population of over 30,000 inhabitants in 1959. Similarly, a UNR assault in 1965 had little success. Only with Georges Pompidou’s election in 1969 did the UDR begin making its peace with ‘traditional’ parties of the right, running with them instead of against them. In 1971, the UDR’s share of communes with over 30,000 people increased to 18.1%, if only to fall to 7% in the left-wing wave election of 1977. In 1983, the RPR for the first time became more powerful than the UDF in municipal government.

A French political tradition of great importance to local government is the cumul des mandats. A large majority of senators and deputies hold at least one other elected office – often, serving as mayor. For example, the mayors of Lyon and Marseille are both senators. Some of the more extreme examples of this French quirkiness: two Prime Ministers, Pierre Mauroy (1981-1984) and Jacques Chirac (1986-1988) concurrently served as mayors of Lille and Paris respectively; more recently, Alain Juppé served as foreign minister and mayor of Bordeaux at the same time. There has been increased public attention on the issue in recent years. Upon taking office, the current government barred all cabinet ministers from being mayor at the same time. After originally delaying it indefinitely, the government made good on one of its campaign promises in January 2014. According to a new law, deputies and senators will no longer be able to be parliamentarians and mayors (or head of a local executive: EPCI, general council, regional council etc) at the same time. This law will only be applied following the 2017 election. Banning (excessive) cumul des mandats is popular with voters, but it is, as could be expected, a tough issue for legislators themselves. In the Senate, members of both the opposition and government parties sought, unsuccessfully, to oppose the law or create a loophole for themselves. Their main argument was that the cumul des mandats gives them a strong local footing.

In the aftermath of the law’s approval, some interest in this year’s municipal election was paid to the issue of candidates who already held another elective office. Le Monde drew up an interactive map compiling the names of all candidates in municipal elections who are already deputy/senator etc.

2014: Context

These municipal elections are widely watched as the first nationwide test for President François Hollande, the PS president elected in 2012 against UMP incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. After nearly two years in office, Hollande is deeply unpopular. TNS-Sofres’ monthly tracker poll in March had Hollande’s approval rating standing at a puny 17%, nearly an all-time low for a French President. Every pollster has his disapproval rating over 70%, in many cases over 75%. That being said, two recent trackers – from Ifop and Ipsos – have shown a tiny uptick (+1 to 22% for Ipsos, +3 to 23% for Ifop), although at this level it’s almost a dead cat bounce. In summary, the incumbent President is more unpopular than nearly every single one of his predecessors – including Giscard in 1977 and Mitterrand in 1983.

As I noted in my analysis of the runoff in 2012, “the fact that the election was more Sarkozy’s defeat than Hollande’s victory and that Hollande owes his victory to anti-Sarkozysm will certainly come back to haunt the PS and Hollande in the near future, once voters forget Sarkozy and shift their judgement to the new incumbent.”

The causes of Hollande’s unpopularity are plentiful and beyond the scope of this post. At the roots of it all, however, is France’s bad economic situation. While not at ‘Greece’ or ‘Spain’ levels, France is clearly hit very badly by the ongoing European economic crisis. Unemployment stood at 10.2% in the last trimester of 2012, and it has increased from about 9.5% since Hollande took office in May 2012. Economic growth was flat in 2012 and barely positive in 2013. The country’s public debt is over 93% of GDP, and it missed its 2013 budget deficit target (3.9% of GDP, was 4.1%). It is clear that, if we’re honest, Hollande isn’t to blame for the roots of the crisis. Voters will invariably blame their government for their economic woes. However, at the same time, Hollande’s economic policies – rightly – got him a lot of flack, left and right.

At times, the government has been a bit like a deer in the headlights when it comes to dealing with the economic crisis. It has been seen as powerless, lost and incompetent in its handling of the economy. The right has criticized the ‘amateurism’ and jumbled response of the government and denounced high taxes. The outcry against the heavy burden of taxes, part of a government effort to reduce the deficit, has been particularly pronounced. The government increased the top bracket on the income tax (incomes over 150,000 euros) from 41% to 45%, the wealth tax (ISF) was toughened up, family tax benefits were cut, a pension reform increased employees and employers’ contributions (the same reform also increased the contributory period to 43 years, after the right’s 2010 reform, opposed by the PS, had raised it to 41 and increased the legal retirement age to 62). The government also increased the VAT’s standard rate from 19.6% to 20%, the intermediate rate from 7% to 10% and maintained the reduced rate at 5.5% (despite previously promising to bring it down to 5%.

The VAT increase, voted in 2012 and taking effect in 2014, was to finance a 20 billion euro tax credit to employers to reduce unit labour costs.

Many on the left, however, also dislike the government’s economic policies. Hollande and the PS won the 2012 election on a fairly anti-austerity platform complete with flowery rhetoric about ‘growth’ and such niceties, but once in power it has largely continued Sarkozy’s austerity policies (disguised as ‘efforts’ because austerity is unpronounceable by governments since the 1980s). Hollande approved the European Fiscal Compact without any substantial changes, despite having pledged to renegotiate it. His government has implemented harsh austerity measures, including tax increases and spending/job cuts in the public sector. The Constitutional Council has also forced him to scrap his much-publicized 75% tax on incomes over a million euros. The government reframed the 75% tax a temporary tax to be paid by employers on salaries over 1 million euros. With good reason, many on the left feel that Hollande’s policies are no different than his predecessor’s policies.

In 2014, Hollande announced a pacte de responsabilité with employers, proposing to reduce payroll taxes paid out by employers if they took on new, especially young, workers. The announcement, which led to significant talk of Hollande shifting to the right, was met with skepticism in France. Regular citizens, who have seen Hollande’s record of failure since 2012, have little optimism in his proposal. The left and unions were skeptic or hostile towards the idea of dropping costs on employers (up to 10 billion euros in cuts in payroll taxes) in exchange for very vaguely defined (and probably minor) job creations. On the left, the rumour that Germany’s Peter Hartz would come to advise Hollande led to fears of a ‘neoliberal’ economic agenda. The government’s latest idea will need to be financed by more painful cuts in the public sector.

There has been a groundswell of popular opposition to the government, fueled by widespread pessimism in the country’s future and disillusion/dissatisfaction with the government’s policy. In Brittany, beginning in October 2013, an heterogeneous popular protest movement (led mostly by farmers or agrifood workers) attacked the government’s so-called écotaxe, a proposed tax on heavy goods vehicles (actually decided on by the right in 2009). The movement, styled the bonnets rouges after an 1675 anti-tax revolt in Brittany, brought together an heterogeneous bunch: employers in agri-food, rural communities and leaders, Breton autonomists/nationalists, the far-left and some of the far-right. The heterogeneity of the movement and the self-serving motivations of some (particularly employers, held responsible by some for an outdated and polluting agrifood industry) led some on the left, notably José Bové and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to criticize the movement. Nevertheless, the ‘wind of revolt’ in Brittany, traditionally a politically moderate region, forced the government to back down on the écotaxe and announce several measures to help the Breton economy and please the demands of some autonomists (notably promises to finally ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages).

Electoral promises of ‘reindustralization’ and government talk of ‘made in France’, a project spearheaded by Arnaud Montebourg, industry minister and former leader of the PS’ left-wing, have run into the reality of globalization, economic crisis and the workings of the global economy. There has been little to no reindustralization worth speaking off. Montebourg’s grandstanding in late 2012 on the issue of an ArcelorMittal steel plant at Florange (Moselle), when he threatened to nationalize the site, won him a rebuke from the government (which refused to hear of nationalization), personal embarrassment and criticism from unions.

The government and Hollande have continued to run into embarrassing issues, gaffes or crises since taking office. The law legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption, promulgated in May 2013, mobilized a large segment of right-wing socially conservative opinion against the government and the law, with thousands taking to the streets in November-December 2012. There were more protests after the adoption of the law in 2013 and 2014. Members of the UMP and the far-right National Front (FN) joined the ranks of the protests, which brought together an heterogeneous coalition of opponents: social conservatives, traditionalist Catholics, integrist Catholics, neo-fascists and far-right politicians from France and other European countries (controversially, the BNP’s Nick Griffin, alongside FN parliamentarians). The UMP claimed that the “socialist power” (they often tend to present the PS government as some kind of East German authoritarian regime) was intervening in the private lives of citizens. The movement brought out fairly repugnant groups: homophobes, neo-fascists, skinheads, anti-Semites and assorted cranks. In April 2013, an homosexual couple was attacked and beaten up. In June 2013, far-left activist Clément Méric was killed by far-right skinheads. In January 2014, a jour de colère protest was organized by far-right groups, including monarchists, traditionalists, neo-fascists and anti-Semites; more moderate supporters of the anti-gay marriage movement (La manif pour tous) condemned the jour de colère protests.

While the government moved forward despite opposition on same-sex marriage, in January 2014, the government backtracked on a proposed bill on the family. The anti-gay marriage movement had raised concerns, many of them invented wholesale or badly twisted, that the government sought to legalize assisted reproductive technologies (the bill would not have legalized it, even if Hollande said he was personally in favour, and many PS deputies supported it) and surrogacy (which the government never supported, let alone intend to legalize it). Backtracking in the face of popular opposition is a specialty of French governments left and right, hoping that it will kill the issue and diffuse tensions. But it is never a good PR strategy for the government: in backtracking, it alienates those who backed the government on the specific issue while those who opposed the issue are no more likely to start liking the government.

The government’s image has been hurt further by public divisions, contradictions or gaffes by individual cabinet ministers. The government, which is rather inexperienced and lacks internal cohesion, has seen several cabinet ministers contradict one another or announce policy which isn’t actually government policy. The Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, is frustrated by the lack of cabinet solidarity and has been forced to put ministers back in their place, but at the same time he’s quickly turning into a non-entity which is nearly forgotten by the media and seemingly plays little role in public government policy and communication. His approval ratings are in the trash, like Hollande.

In March 2013, the government was rocked by a huge scandal: Jérôme Cahuzac, the junior Minister of the Budget, had been revealed to have had a secret offshore account in Switzerland. After vehemently denying the accusations, he was forced to resign from cabinet in March after a court opened a preliminary inquiry and after a court indicted him for tax fraud in April, he admitted that he had a Swiss bank account. There were questions over what Hollande, Ayrault and the government knew of the affair before its media revelation in December 2012.

The Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, whose presidential ambitions are no secret (he ran in the PS primaries in 2011) and who is often seen as a maverick (on the right of the PS, and challenging sacrosanct policies of the left such as the 35 hour workweek), has gained significant popularity (ironically, perhaps more so on the right than on the left) for his tough-on-crime and immigration policies. Valls’ ministry has continued to deport undocumented migrants, dismantle Roma encampments, preached a hardline policy against crime and violence (extremist, criminal or otherwise); at times, it’s hard to spot obvious differences between Valls and his right-wing predecessors, whom the PS had criticized. In September 2013, Valls said that, with few exceptions, it was ‘impossible’ to integrate the Roma population into French society (because of ‘different lifestyles’) and that the only solution was to dismantle the camps and return occupants to their country of origin. A few months prior, Valls had said that the Roma were intended to stay in Romania or return there. Valls’ comments sparked outrage on the left, including within the government, from Montebourg (it’s no secret that Montebourg dislikes Valls and Ayrault) and the Greens. His comments did not outrage public opinion, because it is favourable to tough anti-immigration policies (a poll showed that most French approved of his comments); several mayors, especially on the right, have been outspoken on difficulties posed by Roma encampments (one mayor, Gilles Bourdouleix, the mayor of Cholet, suggested that Hitler perhaps hadn’t killed enough gypsies…). But they further hurt the government with a small but vocal minority of pro-immigration/multiculturalism activists on the left, who have already been very much at odds with Valls’ policy.

In October 2013, immigration caused another major uproar: Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year old undocumented immigrant attending a French school, was arrested during a school field trip and deported to Kosovo. Valls’ behaviour as responsible minister once again raised debate and criticism on the left. Hollande was forced to intervene, and he haplessly proposed a compromise: while supporting the decision, he proposed that Leonarda be allowed to return, alone, to complete her studies (she refused). On the left, the decision was criticized (even the leader of the PS, Harlem Désir, signaled his disapproval) on humanitarian grounds. The right attacked Hollande’s “indecision”, denounced a terrible blow to the authority of the State and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen called on him to resign for humiliating France. The UMP proposed abolishing jus soli, Valls talked of reforming asylum policy.

Valls remains one of the most popular ministers, but his widespread support has dropped in recent months. He is the third most popular politician in France according to Ipsos’ March 2014 barometer, but with a polarized 46 positive, 42 negative split. In Ifop’s poll of cabinet ministers in March 2014, he ranked fifth, with a 53% approval.

In July 2013, the environment minister, Delphine Batho, was fired after having publicly deplored the budget cuts which her ministry suffered in the latest round of austerity cuts. Batho later criticized the government’s environmental policies (specifically, its lack of interest in environmental and energy transformations) and the influence of energy and resource companies. Batho’s firing was probably an attempt by Hollande and co. to appear ‘tough’ on cabinet dissonance after the Cahuzac scandal; it happened that a minor figure in a lesser ministry was the scapegoat for that.

Batho’s resignation placed some attention on the government’s environmental policy, and raised new questions on the presence of Green (Europe Écologie-Les Verts, EELV) ministers in government. EELV owes much of its 17-member caucus in the National Assembly to an electoral agreement with the PS in the 2012 legislative elections, and the personal/financial benefits of holding a cabinet portfolio (a ‘strapontin ministériel‘ – a cabinet jump seat) have turned EELV’s ministers (led by Cécile Duflot, former EELV leader and the poorly-regarded housing minister) into leaders of a pro-government branch, which criticizes the government on some issues but when push comes to shove always sides with the government. A significant left-wing minority inside the party, which won nearly 40% support at EELV’s federal congress in October 2013, is very critical of Hollande and would like for EELV to leave cabinet. Several EELV parliamentarians have signaled their opposition; Noël Mamère, one of the Greens’ most visible and well-known deputies, left EELV in September 2013, decrying EELV’s complacency, support for the government and its transformation into a party of stale self-interested, self-serving elected officials.

On the left of the PS, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front (FG)’s presidential candidate in 2012, has been extremely critical of the government’s austerity policies. However, despite incessant and violent attacks by Mélenchon and the FG on the government’s policies, they have largely been unable (thus far) to profit from the government’s unpopularity with left-wing voters. Mélenchon is a polarizing figure; his abrasive, in-your-face and often unpleasant public person is off-putting to many voters and the FG generally appears to lack credibility as a credible leftist alternative to the PS. Furthermore, as will be touched upon later, the municipal elections opened up very public and damaging divisions between Mélenchon’s small Left Party (PG), which is firmly anti-PS and the PCF, the largest party in the FG, which still retains some attachment (mostly for strategic and self-serving electoral reasons) to the old alliances with the PS.

Sarkozy’s defeat in May 2012 traumatized the UMP, which, for the first time since its creation in 2002 was now an opposition party. In November 2012, a UMP congress to elect a permanent president for the party turned into a nearly fatal civil war between the two candidates, the incumbent secretary-general Jean-François Copé and Sarkozy’s Prime Minister François Fillon. In an election marred by fraud and vote rigging by both sides, Copé was initially proclaimed the winner by 98 votes by an internal party commission. Two days later, Fillon’s supporters challenged the results, claiming that Fillon won by 26 votes because the party commission ‘forgot’ to include 1,304 votes cast in three overseas federations. This opened a civil war between both men; mediation by party elder and the popular moderate mayor of Bordeaux (and former Prime Minister) Alain Juppé failed, an appeals commission (led by a man who had backed Copé) ruled on a challenge lodged by Copé against filloniste fraud in the Alpes-Maritimes – it proclaimed Copé as the winner nationally, now with 952 votes (they cancelled the results, very selectively, in pro-Fillon Alpes-Maritimes and New Caledonia), and Fillon created a dissident parliamentary group in the National Assembly (R-UMP). Facing the very real threat of a split in the UMP, which would cripple the financially strapped party, the two enemies agreed to a temporary compromise in January 2013: Fillon’s R-UMP would dissolve, Copé would remain president while all other leadership positions in the party would be ‘doubled’ – one filloniste, one copéiste. Originally, a new congress should have been held in the fall of 2013, but fearing another crisis before the 2014 elections, the UMP decided to postpone the congress until 2015.

Copé suffers from a very acute image problem: he’s extremely unpopular with voters; for example, Ipsos’ monthly barometer in March 2014 showed him with a 70% disapproval rating (18% approval). Fillon, in contrast, has a 39% approval (49% disapproval); both men’s ratings took a hit from the 2012 congress and civil war. Copé is perceived as too right-wing, too economically liberal, too rash and the story of the 2012 congress (and how, if he won, it owes a lot to organized fraud and vote rigging by Copé’s men) further hurt his image. His leadership, by all accounts, has hardly been inspiring. The UMP has been desperate to oppose the government at every turn, in the process latching on to the most ridiculous of ‘controversies’ and non-issues – for example, Copé recently complained about how a children’s book on nudity was destroying the youth (or something); the UMP, at the same time, was going insane with faux outrage over ‘gender theory’ education in public schools (the government has a program to promote and teach gender equality in primary school). In the meantime, the UMP is not considered to be a credible alternative to the government – it lacks coherent policy (except being anti-government), its fire is often stolen by the far more popular far-right FN and the division between Copé and Fillon remains very clear (quite tellingly, at a recent electoral rally in Strasbourg attended by both, Fillon and Copé were never side by side!).

Copé has also been mixed up in several scandals. Most recently, in late February 2014, Le Point revealed that an events organization firm (Bygmalion) owned by two friends of Copé received 8 million euros in UMP funds for organizing events in the 2012 campaign. After the revelation of the scandal, Copé’s ratings in the aforecited Ipsos tracker fell 4%.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the defeated President, has never been far behind in all this. It is known that he took his defeat in 2012 pretty badly, and holds a deep grudge against Hollande. The UMP’s rank-and-file remains, by and large, solidly sarkozyste and would love to see him return in 2017. For UMP sympathizers and many on the right in general, Hollande’s disastrous presidency only vindicates Sarkozy and reinforces their burning desire to see Sarkozy return to the presidency in 2017. That Sarkozy himself is very much planning for a return in 2017 is probably the worst keep secret in French politics right now. If he were to do so, polls show that Sarkozy would win the UMP’s 2016 primaries in a landslide. But Sarkozy, since 2012, has been dogged by several scandals.

In December 2012, the campaign finance and public financing commission rejected Sarkozy’s 2012 campaign finance report. The issue plunged the financially troubled party further in debt, but an appeal by Sarkozy to UMP members to contribute to the party allowed the UMP to raise over 11 million euros in just two months, which is equivalent to the sum lost by the party in public financing after Sarkozy’s campaign finances were invalidated. Sarkozy has faced other scandals. In March 2013, Sarkozy was indicted in the Bettencourt affair (illegal payments from L’Oréal shareholder Liliane Bettencourt to UMP members, part of a wider tax fraud case involving Bettencourt and her family) but charges against him were dropped in June 2013. Sarkozy, as explained in this article, is also involved in other scandals.

One of the most important ones is the Sarkozy-Gaddafi scandal: in April 2012, Mediapart published documents which indicated that the former Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi may have given 50 million euros to Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign. During the Libyan Civil War, officials in Gaddafi’s regime, including his son Saif al-Islam had said that Libya had funded Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. In April 2013, a Parisian court opened a judicial investigation (citing no names) in the Gaddafi case. On March 7, 2014, Le Monde revealed that Sarkozy (and two former interior ministers Claude Guéant and Brice Hortefeux, close allies of Sarkozy cited in the Gaddafi case) had their phones bugged as part of the judicial investigation, beginning in September 2013. The transcripts of the wiretaps had found that Sarkozy and his lawyers were benefiting from insider information on the judicial process from judges and law enforcement sources – Sarkozy was appealing to the Court of Cassation the decision a judge in the Bernard Tapie scandal to send Sarkozy’s personal agenda to the judge in charge of the Bettencourt case.

The wiretap case shifted against the government, when the UMP successful changed the angle of media focus in the case to whether or not Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, had been aware of the wiretaps. Taubira claimed that she had not been aware until the media revealed it; the following evening, Ayrault said that the government had indeed been aware. Taubira later showed two documents which she claimed proved that she was not aware, but those documents in fact did state that the minister was kept aware. The UMP claimed that Taubira lied and called on her resignation, but it may now appear that Taubira was not lying – her chief of staff was aware, but had not shared the information with Taubira. Since then, new revelations by Mediapart, on how Sarkozy was suspicious of the wiretaps and bought a phone under a ‘fake name’ to talk with his lawyer

Yesterday, on March 20, Sarkozy published an op-ed in the right-wing Le Figaro. He claims, disingenuously, that he has remained silent and ‘in retreat’ since 2012 and that he has no desire for revenge or ill-feelings against anyone. He continues by saying that ‘sacred principles of our Republic are being trampled unprecedented violence and unscrupulousness’ and even denounced Stasi-like techniques.

One person who has clearly benefited from the political climate is Marine Le Pen, the charismatic and increasingly popular leader of the far-right National Front (FN). Le Pen won a record high 17.9% of the vote in the first round of the April 2012 presidential election, and after Sarkozy nearly killed the FN in 2007, the FN under Marine Le Pen’s leadership has roared back. Marine Le Pen benefits from a better image than that of her father and FN patriarch, Jean-Marie Le Pen. If most academics agree that under the veil of dédiabolisation, not much has changed in reality and policy; she does a much better job at appearances and communication than her father, who has a knack for provocative, racist and outrageous statements, lacked. She appears, in the eyes of part of the public, as cleaner, more acceptable, more credible and more moderate. Marine Le Pen has been quite careful at ensuring that the cranks and neo-fascist loons in the FN are kept quiet and has moved quickly, as much as she could without alienating her father and the more radical factions of the FN (who have been suspicious of her), to remove from public spotlight anybody who was inconvenient for the FN’s rebranding efforts. Marine Le Pen has surrounded herself with a new generation of FN leaders who are more polished and presentable to the media than some of the old guard (men like Bruno Gollnisch, who have said crazy things in the past); they include men like Florian Philippot, a technocrat who is now a FN vice-president.

An Ipsos poll in November 2013 showed that a majority of respondents still think the FN is a far-right party, dangerous for democracy and would never vote the FN and most don’t think that the FN is a credible alternative. The FN’s positions, the poll showed, are not endorsed by a plurality (with one exception, on maintaining local services) although very substantial minorities (up to 46%) agree with the FN on immigration and immigration. However, the results did show favourable trends for the FN: a 9% drop since 2003 in those believing the FN is dangerous for democracy, a 13% drop since 2003 in those who say the FN is a far-right party (most notably with FN voters themselves, 57% in 2003 said the party was far-right but only 34% think so nowadays, a confirmation of the shifts in the FN’s electorate) and an overall ‘potential’ support of 35% (combining those who have already voted FN and those who say they may potentially do so). These results should temper some of the mass panic and concern trolling of some who seem to think that Le Pen will win in 2017…

It is useful to close this explanation of the political climate in France with a look at Ipsos’ very informative poll on French society. In 2014, the main issues are unemployment (56%), taxes (43%, up 16 from 2013!), buying power (36%) followed by pensions (24%), safety (23%), social inequalities (21%) and immigration (21%). Most political institutions and office holders, except mayors, are poorly perceived: a majority lack confidence in the justice system (54%), the EU (69%), the National Assembly (72%), deputies (77%) and political parties (92%). Even less people have confidence in the PS (18%) than in the FN (22%) or UMP (24%). Pessimism is widespread: 90% say France’s economic power has declined in the past ten years although 65% still think that decline is not irreversible. There remains a strong demand for the notion of ‘authority’, with 87% feeling that authority is too often criticized and 84% saying that France needs a ‘real leader’ to ‘restore order’. A majority (about 60%) expressed protectionist views. A large majority expressed dissatisfaction with politics: 65% feeling that most politicians are corrupt, 78% saying that the democratic system is not working well, 84% who think politicians act primarily for their own interests and 88% decrying that politicians don’t preoccupy themselves with what people like them think. Voters are split on issues of government intervention in the economy. A large majority of voters are skeptical of further European integration, with 70% saying that national powers should be reinforced – but at the same time, returning to the franc is still a minority view (33%, but growing) and there’s no clear consensus in the electorate on whether the EU has been a good or a bad thing. 66% think there are too many foreigners in France.

Before the results start coming out on Sunday (20:00 Paris time), expect another post detailing the main contests to follow.

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Posted on March 22, 2014, in Election Preview, France, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Felicity Fallon

    Why are EU residents in France allowed to vote in municipal but not departmental elections in France? What is the logic behind this, when the department is responsible for day-to-day amenities, much like the municipality?

  1. Pingback: Election Preview: France Municipal Elections 2014 – Part II | World Elections

  2. Pingback: France 2014 (R1) | World Elections

  3. Pingback: France 2014 (R2) | World Elections

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