Regional Elections in France: The UMP takes a hit

Yesterday was regional elections day in France. France has not traditionally had any strong local government structure – one of the first acts of the revolution was the abolition of the old provinces and their replacement with purely administrative “departments.” However, the last 20 years have seen radical changes in the way French government is structured and the EU in particular has been a big force in decentralising the French state. The creation of the regions in 1982 was motivated by a desire to create institutions able to participate in partnering programmes with German Länder, particularly programmes subsidised by the EU. However, they have since taken on a life of their own. France is a quite diverse country on the ground and it has a number of long-standing problems related to regional differences.

So, although the regions are still not very powerful in comparison to the central state, they have been growing in power, particularly in areas that are culturally or economically outside of the core of the French state – Corsica, Alsace, Brittany and the overseas territories in particular. A number of significant powers over regional economic development and education are shared with the regions.

For the first time, voter participation in regional elections has increased in France. Somewhere between 60 and 62% of registered voters participated, while the figure was some 57% in 1998. It is unclear to me whether this reflects the growing importance of regional government or the opportunity to protest the ruling UMP government.

It certainly has been a bad day for the conservative UMP. They appear to have taken on 23% of the vote, compared to 40% for the Socialist-Green coallition and roughly 17% for the Front National, making their overall share of the vote roughly stable over the last several elections. The Communists have made a significant recovery after their record low 3.4% of the vote in the last presidential election, receiving roughly 5% of the vote overall and over 8% in all the regions where it ran outside of any coallition. The far left coallition Lutte Ouvrière – Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire received a comparable number of votes to the mainstream Communists, but this is substantially lower than during the last presidential election and comparable to their 1998 returns in the regional elections. The UDF – a mainstream right-wing party allied with the UMP – picked up another 11% of the vote, making the overall vote for government-supported parties roughly 34%.

At present, the mainstream right is leading in only five regions in all of France. This election – like all French elections – takes place in two rounds, so it’s not over yet. However, the right’s position in this election is fragile in almost all parts of France.

Although the bulk of the power in France is still in the central government, this raises the prospect of something that hasn’t happened in France in quite a long time: a central government faced with meaningful opposition rule in the regions. Will the left and the far right use regional government to attack the government in Paris? France’s entire administrative structure, from 1789 to 1982, was designed to make that impossible. This may have a significant impact on the future of decentralisation in France.

3 thoughts on “Regional Elections in France: The UMP takes a hit

  1. The French Regions are woefully devoid of much power. For example, their powers in education only include financing the high schools buildings – and only the high schools, and not the teachers, or the curriculum.

    Their only “real” power lies in the public transportation department ; at least that’s the only place where you regularly hear about them

    Although Raffarin’s hobby horse is to increase decentralization and the power of the regions, it’s not really popular within his own government, much less among the population. And, with such bad election results, Chirac might soon decide to give him the boot.

    That’s why it seems the main reason for the rise in voter participation seems to have been caused – aside from a bad weather making a day in the countryside less attractive – by a general desire to show the disapproval of the government.

    Also, thanks to the new voting systems for those election – changed from almost pure proportional one round voting in 1998 – the far right won’t have any power in any of the regions, unless they actually win one over, which seems unlikely. That was the reason of the electoral change.

    The spending powers of the region are quite often apolitical, spending that has to be done rather than tough political choices. Also, pretty much nobody cares about what happen at the regional level. Makes it pretty hard to have a revolt against the national government.

    Of course the likely impact on decentralisation is that Raffarin won’t be allowed to continue on decentralising ; it will simply stop it.

  2. I always have to think extra hard to translate ‘conservative’ party into ‘Chirac’s’ Party. I know you have the same problem with thinking of Democrats as the ‘liberal’ party. Just one of those funny things.

  3. Yes the words “conservative”, “radical”, and “liberal” do not reflect the actual political organizations in France. The “radical” movement in France is a moderate central-left and progressist movement, and hos nothing in common with the more accurate “extremist” parties on far-right.

    Even the far-left parties in France are not considered today as extremist even if their parties are quite oppaque, they have some sympathie from other right and left leaders and are considered legitimately as playing a fair democratic play, when both Arlette Laguiller (LO) and the young Olivier Besancenot (LCR) have some sympathies (may be people don’t vote much for them because their programs are not realist, but no one see them as threats to the democracy, unlike the FN and its secessionist branch of the MDR).

    Remember that French voters polled massively in a “Republican Front” grouping nearly all parties from left to right during the last presidencials, by supporting Chirac massively against Le Pen. This republican front is an important consensus today that all leaders from right to left and even far-left will protect with good reasons.

    Le Pen is still seen as a major problem for a vast majority of French, that know how to protest more securely by majority shifts between left and right. This new election shows that the left/right political spectrum is not over in France and that people can still see differences between them without needing a call for far-right extremists.

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