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.