French local elections to test strength of far-right

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Local elections in France this weekend will provide an instructive test of the strength of parties ahead of next year's presidential elections. The focus will be on the far-right Front National, which opinion polls suggest has recently gained a significant increase in support, and which hopes to maul President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP conservative right party in a number of regions. Stéphan Alliès details what the elections are about, and what's at stake for the parties involved.
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Local elections in France this weekend will provide an instructive test of thes trength of parties ahead of next year's presidential elections. The far-right Front National, which opinion polls suggest is collecting rising and significant support, will be hoping to maul President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP conservative right party in a number of regions. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party will face a keen challenge from the greens and the radical left. Stéphane Alliès details what the elections are about, and what's at stake for the parties involved.

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France goes to the polls on Sunday in partial local elections to elect members of the regional councils that manage its 100 départements. These administrative regions, which are broadly the equivalent of a county, are made up of more than 4,000 electoral constituencies that are called cantons. Half of these- 2,023 cantons - are involved in Sunday's poll, covering both urban and rural areas.

The two-round vote - the final round is held the following Sunday, March 27th- will elect one councilor per canton. The elected councilors will then sit on their wider local conseil général, the separate regional assemblies of each département.Broadly, these are county council elections.

This year's ‘cantonales' are seenas an important political test, coming as the last electoral event before presidential elections are held in May, 2012. Early indications suggest thatthey will be hit by a larger than usual movement of abstention, for two reasons. Firstly, they are a swansong, the last to be held before the creation of new ‘territorialcouncils' that will replace each conseil généralin 2014. Secondly, in the past they were held alongside more motivating polls,such as the election of municipal councilors, encouraging a bigger turnout, andwhich is not the case this year.

Nonetheless, they will nevertheless provide a very real survey of French political opinion, providing a useful indication of the balance between the political parties ahead of the presidential vote in little more than 12 months' time.

What may blur the forecast slightly is that minority political parties like the leftist Front de gauche alliance, the various green parties and the far-right Front National will only be represented in between 70% and 80% of the cantons concerned.

The far right challenge for the mainstream right

The two-round voting system begins with a first round that eliminates the majority of candidates ahead of a knock-out vote between the favourites the following week in the second round. The minimum vote that any candidate needs to attainin order to carry on to dispute the second round was recently changed to aminimum representing 12.5% of all registered voters (whether they vote or abstain). Previously, it was fixed at 12.5% of votes cast. This new, higher level is a significant modification, because it will mean that in practice mostly just two candidates will qualify for the second round, which would largely amount to a battle between mainstream left and right.

This was above all intended to avoid situations whereby the conservativeright candidates would be, as they often have been in the past in a number ofregions, forced into a second round alliance with the far-right Front National candidatein order to beat their rival left opponents in the second round. The theory behind the new rule, bolstered by an expected abstention rate of up to 60% thisweekend, is that mostly only mainstream party candidates will find themselves through to the second round.

But the plan could well backfire; the current rise in popularity of the Front National, coupled and largely caused by the unpopularity of President Nicolas Sarkozy, means that the far-right party could well recover the majority right vote in a number of cantons, reaching the second round at the expense of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party candidates. One opinion survey company, Ifop, recently identified almost 150 cantons where this scenario was likely, based on regional polls last year and without taking into account the recent rise in support for the Front National indicated by the latest surveys (see below).

 © IFOP © IFOP

The map above, by Ifop, indicates those cantons where the Front National can hope to do well. Those cantons marked in red show where Ifop predicts the FN would arrive in second place; those in light blue are where it predicts the FN will reach a score equivalent to 12.5% of registered voters or more, sending through to the second round, and those marked in dark blue are where Ifop forecasts both criteria will be reached.

 

It is therefore quite possible that second-round polling will see caseswhere Socialist Party candidates are pitted against those from the far right, notably in the east of France. If that is the case, it will prove aninstructive indication of the extent to which mainstream right voters would choose to vote for the Front National in a play-off against the left.

The rising popularity of Front National leader Marine Le Pen, the figurehead of its cantonal election campaign, suggests it may well this weekend deepen its hold on traditional areas of support, (in the largely urban constituencies of eastern Alsace, the southern Rhône, south-eastern PACA and northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais regions), and establish new records of support in rural areas.

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