Why the French regional elections actually matter

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Why the French regional elections actually matter
Marine Le Pen could lay down a statement of intent in the regional elections.

This weekend sees French people go to the polls for the first round of the regional elections, which far from being just another meaningless local election, are actually hugely significant. Here’s why.


France's regional elections are the first since 22 regions were combined into just 13 super regions and despite the fact that the turn-out is expected to be low, they actually do matter.

1. Because of The National Front

Yes, every time there’s an election in France, whether its local, European or presidential, all the talk seems to be about the National Front and its unstoppable rise.

While the party has achieved some significant results (winning 11 towns in the local elections and gaining the most votes of all parties in the 2014 European elections) this month’s regional elections could really be the significant breakthrough Marine Le Pen’s party has been building towards for a while.

Most polls suggest Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-EU party will gain control of two of France’s most significant regions, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie in the north and the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA) in the south.

That would see the media-savvy battle-hardened Marine Le Pen take control in the northern region and her niece Marion-Maréchal-Le-Pen, labelled an up and coming star of the party, governing the region in the south.

To put the march of the National Front in some kind of context, by next Sunday the far-right party could control two out of 13 regions in France, whereas back in March 2014 they won 11 councils out of 36,000. And that was deemed a historic success.

The map below really showed the dominance of the FN in certain parts of France. (The black areas show where the National Front are leading the polls for the first round)

If the National Front do pick up the regions it will be more justification for Marine Le Pen’s long-running campaign to de-demonise the National Front by focusing on French national sovereignty towards the EU and employing a slightly more coded rhetoric on Islam and immigration.

And she may be helped even further by her ruthless move to kick her own father out of the party after his incendiary remarks about the Holocaust earlier this year.

France’s two mainstream parties The Republicans and the Socialists appear powerless to stop the Le Pen juggernaut. The so-called Republican Front - the idea that the left and right would unite to keep the National Front out of power has been rejected by the Republicans. Although it’s important to note they did prevent the National Front winning control of any départements in March’s elections.

2. Because the regionals a key launchpad for 2017

The significance of Marine Le Pen winning the northern region is of course not just limited to Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie.

Winning the regional election will be a significant step in Le Pen’s campaign for the 2017 presidential elections, in which she is expected to make the second round run-off vote.

Winning a region and having her niece in power in the south would give Le Pen huge legitimacy as she strives to convince French voters her party can be trusted in power.

Regional authority doesn’t just boost the FN’s credibility symbolically, it will allow the organization an unprecedented opportunity to build a track record in exercising power.  Marine Le Pen and Marion Maréchal Le Pen would graduate from being media stars to positions of concrete administrative authority.

3. Because there’s a lot at stake for Sarkozy too

A year after Nicolas Sarkozy returned to the political boxing ring by taking the reins of his centre-right Republicans party (formerly UMP) the former president will hope success in the regionals will give him a springboard to launch a bid to return to the Elysée palace in 2017

Since his return Sarkozy has managed to exercise some power over the party with his initiative to re-brand it, and he also lead them to victory in March’s “départemental” elections when they won 66 out of the country’s 101 départements or counties.

The regional elections will be an important test of Sarkozy’s leadership.  

“For the Republicans, the regional elections are a primary before the primary,” Thibaut Pézerat, a French political journalist for weekly magazine Marianne told The Local.

If the Republicans fail to secure big wins in the regional elections, the party might opt for the leadership of other presidential hopefuls in the party, like the moderate Alain Juppé - who polls much higher with young voters.

4. Because we'll see the impact of the terror attacks

Will the bombs and the bullets of the terrorists have any impact on France’s political landscape?

It’s possible. Most analysts believe the attacks just three weeks ago will benefit Le Pen’s National Front. The anti-immigration, anti-European Union FN has surged ahead in national polls since November 13 by appealing to French people’s concerns about radical Islam, migration, border controls and national security.

But any real impact of the attacks for the National Front vote may be hard to gauge given that polls already them in a strong position.

One interesting knock-on effect of the assault on Paris could be on the beleaguered Socialist party, who were expected to be routed. In the last regional elections in 2010 they won all the regions apart from Alsace, but that certainly won't happen this time.

Since the attacks however, President François Hollande’s popularity ratings have taken an unprecedented jump and now stand at their highest levels since 2012, due to his robust and forceful response. Whether or not that will transfer into a boost for the Socialist party’s regional candidates is unclear, but it certainly can’t harm their chances.

5. Because real power is at stake

French elections are often talked about in symbolic terms, since they are seen as an important test of public opinion in the run-up to Presidential and legislative elections. But this doesn’t mean that there’s no real power at stake.

French regions control a number of key government functions, including public transport and the management of public high schools (lycees). They are charged with making regional economic plans and allocating development funds accordingly, as well as determining funding for NGOs and arts and culture initiatives.

In the PACA region, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has vowed to de-fund the French equivalent of Planned Parenthood. In the North, Marine Le Pen has said she would reevaluate funding for arts and culture more generally, saying that the regional government “can’t just be a bank teller for subsidies.”

By Robert Williams Urquhart/Ben McPartland














A poll last Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche found that 54% of French people did not plan to participate in the regional elections. The lack of will to go vote is most pronounced among young people (18-35), among whom only is 28% say they will participate.

The rate of abstention in French elections has more than doubled since the 1980s, pointing to a mounting disaffection for the political class among French people. Unsatisfied with the ruling Socialists and uninterested in returning power to Sarkozy's center-right, but opposed to National Front radicalism, many French people have unplugged from elections more or less entirely.


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