An abstention rate of more than 55% and significant gains by the far-right Front National party were the key results of the first round of local elections held across France on Sunday to elect members of the regional councils that manage the country's 100 départements, the administrative regions which are broadly the equivalent of a county.
The Front National garnered more than 15% of votes cast, less than two percent adrift of the vote for President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling conservative right UMP party which totaled just under 17% (16.97%). The opposition Socialist Party, with just under 25% (24.94%) of the vote, took top position.
It was a severe defeat for the president's supporters, and confirmed the recent steep rise in support for the Front National (FN), which opinion surveys have predicted could pose a major threat to Sarkozy in next year's presidential elections. But, as Stéphane Allièsand Lénaig Bredouxreport here, the left had surprisingly little to rejoice over.
Sunday's poll was the first of two rounds, the second due next Sunday, in which could broadly be called county council elections. With 21 million voters called to the urns, these partial local elections represent the last political test before presidential elections in May 2012.
They are held to elect councilors onto the regional assemblies that manage France's 100 départements. Each département is divided up into electoral constituencies called cantons, and which total 4,039 nationwide. Just more than half - 2,026 cantons - are involved in the current elections.
Under two-round voting system, only candidates who attract more than 50% of the vote in the first round are immediately elected. That event is extremely rare, and almost all of the elections head into a second round play-off between those candidates who attracted a score equivalent to more than 12.5% of the number of registered voters (as opposed to votes cast). In practice, this means most second (and final) round voting is a match between two candidates.
The first-round scores on Sunday saw the far-right Front National (FN) strike significant scores in many cantons, with its candidates heading for a second-round showdown in more than 400 constituencies. In many of these it will be the only party of the right to face a candidate of the left, mostly representatives of the Socialist Party (PS).
A major test of the attitudes of the mainstream right electorate will be played out in these cantons where candidates from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling conservative right UMP party were eliminated in the first round. In a speech on Monday, Sarkozy refused to call upon his supporters to block the FN by voting for the PS in the spirit of a front républicain (a republican, or democratic, front). The dilemma has caused a split among his own ranks, with several centre-right and UMP figures arguing for a vote against the FN even if this means electing a candidate from the opposition left. The issue is made all the acute given the 55.6% national average abstention rate registered in Sunday’s elections.
This call for a front républicain is, in a reverse situation, precisely what happened in presidential elections in 2002, when Jacques Chirac faced then-FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in a second round knock-out vote; then, the mainstream left, led by the PS, called on its supporters to vote for conservative right candidate Chirac in order to eliminate any chance of Le Pen winning the election1.
While the stakes in the cantonal elections are clearly less dramatic, the massive abstention rate, the rise of the far-right and the consequences of the FN establishing itself in local political assemblies saw the main parties of the left call an urgently convened joint press conference after Sunday’s polling.
On a barge on the river Seine, close to the PS headquarters on the rue de Solférino in the heart of Paris, PS first secretary Martine Aubry, Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) green alliance leader Cécile Duflot and Communist Party (PC) national secretary Pierre Laurent all gravely spoke of the "urgency" and "responsibility" for the left in uniting against the FN next Sunday.
The three appealed to their electorate to turn out en masse next Sunday to counter the FN vote, which they described as a sign of "the desperation" into which the French electorate has sunk. "We are together tonight, which is not a regular occurrence, because we have a major responsibility," commented Martine Aubry.
1: The first round of the 2002 presidential elections saw the vote on the left split among candidates at the expense of the chief contender, Socialist Party candidate and outgoing prime minister, Lionel Jospin. As a result, he scored just 16.18% of the vote in the first round, from which only the leading two candidates emerge for the final second-round play-off. Jospin was third placed, behind conservative right candidate Jacques Chirac (19.88%) and Front National leader Jean Marie Le Pen (16.86%). The socialists called upon their supporters to vote for Chirac in the second round against Le Pen. Chirac was elected president with an unprecedented 82.21% share of the vote.