What you need to know about France's (very complicated) municipal elections

Ingri Bergo
Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
What you need to know about France's (very complicated) municipal elections
A ballot box outside the City Hall in Strasbourg, waiting to be filled. Photo: AFP

Who can vote, how do you register and what happens on election day? Here's a run-down of what you need to know to be prepared for the upcoming local elections.


In Paris, election season was dramatically kicked off with a sex-scandal involving a close aide of the President, a young French law student and a Russian artist most famous for nailing his scrotum on the Red Square in Moscow.

But while that has provided an interesting diversion, municipal elections are actually a serious business all across France.

Plus - unlike the presidential elections - European Union citizens living in France have the right to vote in local elections.

When are they?

Like its presidential elections, France’s municipal elections play out in two rounds. The key dates to remember for 2020 are March 15th and 22nd (both Sundays).

The two-round system is for all towns that have more than 1,000 inhabitants.

Smaller municipalities might only hold one round.

Who can vote?

All French citizens who turned 18 before March 14th 2020 can vote in their respective municipality on the first round. Anyone turning 18 between March 15th and 21st may participate in the second round only.

I just became French, can I vote too?

Yes, if you got your citizenship on or before March 5th 2020. 

I don't have a French citizenship, but I'm from the EU.

Then you can vote too.

All European Union citizens in France have the right to vote in their respective municipality, provided that they are more than 18 years old, based in France and have registered for the general electoral roll. 

The deadaline for the municipals has passed, but if you wish to register for future municipal and European elections, you may do so online (here), at your local City Hall (filling out and presenting these documents) or via mail (see instructions here).

The condition for registering as a voter in a French municipality is that you tick one or several of the following boxes:

  • your home address is there;
  • you lived there for at least six months;
  • you paid local taxes there for at least two years (like one of the two housing taxes taxe d'habitation or taxe foncière);
  • or if you run or own an enterprise that has been registred and taxed there for at least two years.

See the French government's website for further details.

I registered earlier, but I'm from the UK.

Unfortunately, you cannot vote. Since Brexit, British citizens in France will not be able to vote for their local representatives (read more here).

Some 900 Britons serving on local councils will also have to give up their seat at the table after this election.

What happens on election day?

The first round is held on March 15th.

By then, all registered voters will have received a special voting card that is valid for both municipal and European elections. 

To vote you must bring:

  • Voter registration card (rules may differ depending on your municipality, some don't use them)
  • A passport or another proof of identity (see the government’s exhaustive list of valid ID documents).

In municipalities with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants only the voter registration card is mandatory. However, if in doubt, the voting bureau chief may ask you to prove your identity.

When arriving, you will be given an envelope and the ballot papers of all candidates.

  • Go into a voting booth 
  • Choose your ballot
  • Place chosen ballot in the envelope
  • As you exit the booth, before depositing your vote in the ballot box, show your papers. The registration card will be stamped
  • Sign the register of voters
  • Put the vote into the ballot box

Some municipalities use voting machines, but procedure is more or less the same.

  • Show your documents before voting
  • Select the voting option on the screen
  • If correct, validate.
  • If incorrect, press "correct", select your preferred option and validate. (Obviously there will be administrators there to help if needed.)

The machine will close after validation. After voting, sign the register of voters. The registration card will be stamped.

How are the ballots divided?

As a general rule, there are two different ways of holding municipal elections in France, depending on the size of the population in the respective municipality.

More than 1,000 inhabitants

In cities with more than 1,000 inhabitants, municipal officials are elected through universal suffrage, combining a majority and proportional vote.

When the votes are counted, the candidate whose list gets an absolute majority (more than 50 percent) in the first round will  take half of the seats in the City Council. The second half will be divided proportionally among all the parties that obtained more than 5 percent of the votes cast.

If no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first round, there will be a second round. Only the lists that got more than 10 percent of the votes in the first round may present themselves.

Smaller lists that passed the threshold of 5 percent the first round may join the second round if they fuse with a list that got more than 10 percent.

Less than 1,000 inhabitants

Municipalities counting less than 1,000 inhabitants operate with a majority vote, which is also held in two rounds. 

Candidates may present themselves alone or as part of a group a group, but all votes are counted by candidate.

Vote-splitting (voting for candidates on different lists) and preference voting (deleting names) are allowed.

You can also write in the names of declared candidates preferred to those on the list.

In practice in many smaller areas it's finding people to stand for election that's the biggest challenge. If there are only as many candidates as there are seats available, voting goes directly to round two without a first round.

Are there exceptions?

This is France, of course there are exceptions.

Elections in three of the largest cities, Paris, Lyon and Marseille, are run slightly differently than in the rest of the country.


Parisians vote by arrondissements, electing representatives for the Conseil de Paris. The elected conseillers de Paris then elect the capital’s next Mayor.

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Each candidate running for Mayor must present a list of candidates in all the arrondissements. There is no single list for the entire city of Paris. 

The number of seats each arrondissement gets depends on the size of their populations.

Some get as few as three seats (like arrondissements 6 and 8) while others get as many as 14 (like 19 and 20).

Arrondissements 1, 2, 3 and 4 have been fused together as Central Paris and get 8 seats in total.

Any candidate whose list got at least 5 percent during first round may fuse with another list who made it to the second round (those that achieved more than 10 percent).

So when will we know the name of the new Mayor of Paris?

The new representatives to the Conseil de Paris will elect the Mayor in the week following the election (March 29th at the latest). 

The candidate must get an absolute majority to win the election. However, if two rounds of voting are held without anyone obtaining over half of the votes, a third round with a relative majority threshold will be held.

The Mayors of the separate arrondissements are elected by the eight days after the Mayor has been elected, by the Conseil de Paris and the conseillers d’arrondissement.

And don’t forget the Conseillers métropolitains!

This is new. Starting 2020, voters in Paris will elect the so-called conseillers métropolitains, the officials representing the whole area known as Métropole du Grand Paris (established in 2016).

These are the areas belonging to the Métropole du Grand Paris:

Fun fact
There are 36,681 communes in France. However five of them have a mayor but no residents.
Read more about them here.


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