EXPLAINED: What's at stake in France's regional elections

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James Harrington - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: What's at stake in France's regional elections
A car drives past electoral boards on May 23, 2019 in Saint-Domineuc, western France, as part of the campaign for the upcoming European elections. (Photo by Damien MEYER / AFP)

A year out from France's Presidential elections - which are predictable only in their unpredictability - the French head to the polls for a second time on Sunday, to decide the political shape of the country's regional councils for the next six years.


The first round of voting has already happened, and the French now head back to the polls on Sunday night to make their final choice.

In total, 18 regional presidencies are at stake - 13 in metropolitan France and Corsica, and five more in overseas territories, including the assemblies of French Guiana and Martinique, and the departmental council of Mayotte.

What can we expect from the vote, originally scheduled for March and delayed because of the health situation?


A political temperature check

Regional elections like this are often considered an opinion poll on the incumbent President and as the last time that the French head to the polls before the presidential election next year, this one is being watched more closely than usual.

But despite the media interest, it seems that voters are less engaged - the first round of voting on June 20th was marked by record voter abstention, a massive 66 percent of the electorate decided that it wasn't worth their while to vote.

Those who did vote returned a very poor result for president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique en Marche party in its first regional election fight, while Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National also did less well than in previous regional elections, and significantly less well than advance polling had suggested.

However, it's the final results from the second round that count.

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What do regional councils do?

Usually, regional elections take place every six years. This time, however, the term of office is seven years - with the next ballot scheduled for March 2028, to avoid clashing with the 2027 Presidential elections.

Regional councillors make key decisions about education: lycées are funded by the regions, for example.

They also have devolved powers for economic and social development, regional planning, education, and cultural matters, and fund local TER rail services.

Regions in their current form are relatively new, there was a significant shake-up in 2016, and cover huge areas - for example Nouvelle-Aquitaine is bigger than Scotland. 


Who gets to vote?

This one is for French citizens only. EU citizens do not have the right to vote this time, unlike in municipal elections. Non-EU citizens, including post-Brexit Britons, cannot vote, either.

Three quarters of the seats are elected by proportional representation with each political list having an equal number of male and female candidates. The other quarter are given to the list that received the most votes.

In order to gain these top up seats, a list must have gained an absolute majority of the votes (more than 50 percent) in the first round.

No-one achieved this last week, so a second round is being held involving parties that gained at least 10 percent of the votes in the first round. The party that wins a plurality in this round gains the bonus seats. It is common in this round for lower-ranking parties to withdraw in favour of parties they have entered into an alliance with.

Rise of the right

Le Pen's party had been hoping for big gains, but in fact ended up with a smaller vote share than the last elections in 2016. The did finish in front in the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, however.

Candidates from the centre-right, on the other hand, did better than expected.

The week since the first poll has seen a lot of alliances and political horse trading, with some parties withdrawing candidates or urging their supporters to vote for someone else in the 'front républicain' or an alliance to keep out the far-right.

Sunday will show whether this has been effective or whether the far-right wins power in a region for the first time.

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What does this mean for next year's Presidential vote?

It's hard to say what all this could mean for the 2022 Presidential elections in France - its comparing political apples and political oranges.

At this stage polling still suggests that the second round in the presidential election will consist of Macron v Le Pen, in a repeat of the 2017 run-off, and yet both of their parties failed to inspire voters on a regional level.

OPINION Enemies of France should not see Le Pen victories on a regional level as a sign of things to come

But we're still a year away from the vote and several parties including the centre-right LR and the centre-left Parti Socialise have yet to pick a candidate for 2022.

And a year is a long time in French politics.


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