French voters go to the polls on Sunday for the first round of regional and departmental elections. Less than a year before France's 2022 presidential vote, this pandemic-delayed rendez-vous is a potential bellwether, with some contenders keen to use it as a springboard for higher office. FRANCE 24 looks at how the elections work, the stakes for political players, the far-right push for regional glory that is shaping the campaign and the key races to watch.
Who can cast a ballot?
Eligible French adults registered to vote. Unlike for municipal elections, other European Union nationals resident in France do not have a say in these regional and departmental votes.
Turnout could be a factor. In a survey of registered voters last week, 54 percent told Ifop pollsters they intended to stay away on Sunday. A full 58.4 percent of registered voters abstained from the pandemic-delayed second-round of nationwide local elections in June 2020, with the country similarly emerging from a coronavirus lockdown.
This year's elections were meant to take place in March, but were delayed twice – first by three months and then by another week – as a precaution over Covid-19. The second round is on June 27.
Thousands of candidates, far and wide
Fourteen French regions – 12 on the mainland plus Guadeloupe in the Antilles and La Réunion island in the Indian Ocean – will choose from a total of 19,084 candidates to fill 1,757 regional council seats on June 20 and 27. Three other regions - Corsica, Martinique in the Antilles and French Guiana on the northern shoulder of South America – vote to fill the seats of their respective territorial assemblies.
Meanwhile, 15,786 candidates are standing for a total of 4,108 seats in most French administrative departments. Including overseas territories, France has 103 departments, but there are some exceptions that don't hold departmental elections, like Paris and the greater Lyon area.
Winners are elected for six-year terms as a rule. But with 2027 a particularly crowded election year, this month's lucky winners will get to sit a little longer, until March 2028.
Perfect gender parity built-in
One hallmark of these elections' voting systems is gender parity.
For the regional elections, parties present lists that must alternate candidates male and female from top to bottom. To qualify for the runoff, a list must score 10 percent of the vote. But those that score at least five percent are allowed to join up with a qualified party for the second round. That more-the-merrier run-off ethic makes horse-trading another idiosyncratic feature.
For departmental elections, candidate duos – always a man and a woman paired together – throw their hats in the ring as one, vying for seats in one of more than 2,000 cantons across the country, grouped into departments. After two rounds, each member of the winning pair wins an individual seat and exercises his or her duties separately on a departmental council.
What do French regions and departments do anyway?
Regional jurisdiction includes high schools, ports and airports, regional train and inter-city bus networks, regional natural parks, and waste management. Regions also provide economic support to businesses. Departments, meanwhile, have jurisdiction over middle schools, welfare benefits, water utilities, fire brigades and roads.
Aberrations and ambitions
What don't regions and departments do? Significantly, they are barely involved in security matters, beyond rare minor exceptions. But one wouldn't know it from the weight security issues took on during the campaign running up to Sunday's vote.
That anomaly is one knock-on effect of this pandemic-delayed vote's proximity to France's next presidential election: parties thinking ahead to April and May 2022 unabashedly seeking to position themselves on national issues. It is also a function of the security-minded party that, for better or worse, has been shaping electoral strategy across the spectrum, Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally party. Accordingly, conservatives are loath to give up ground on a bread-and-butter issue like security, regional election or not.
As a vote based on proportional representation – unlike France's legislative elections, for instance – the regional elections are unusually favourable to strong showings for the party formerly known as the National Front. Moreover, second-round runoffs can see votes heavily split between three or four parties – "triangulaires" or "quadrangulaires", as such battles are known in French.
As during the last regional elections in 2015, significant energy during this campaign was spent mooting what other parties should do in a given region if the far right qualifies for the runoff: Ally with rival forces to beat Le Pen's party? Pull out of the race in favour of any party best placed to fend off the far right, a tactic known as the "republican front"? Or fancy one's chances regardless, at the risk of bearing the blame for the far right winning a region?
In pre-election Ipsos polling for the first round, the National Rally was ahead in six regions (Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Centre-Val de Loire, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Occitanie, and Bretagne). But the regional elections play out in earnest in the pivotal week between the two rounds. In 2015, the far right deemed "four or five" regions "winnable", but came away with none after the left famously pulled out of the runoff in favour of conservative rivals in northern France and in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur to keep the far right from power.
The 2021 vintage may yet turn out differently for the National Rally, with the party's first-ever wins in one or more regions not outside the realm of possibility in a political landscape very different from 2015. Back then, the governing Socialist Party and the opposition Les Républicains could operate confident in their time-honoured status as France's mainstream parties of government. With his longshot winning bid for the French presidency, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron shattered that status quo in 2017, rattling the old guard and emboldening dark horses.
If the existential crisis that followed the political pacts made before Sunday's first round are any indication, parties are particularly keen to preen for attention on their own merits ahead of the 2022 presidential race. In that context, engineering party alliances next week amid fraught runoffs might well prove a trickier proposition.
The conservative Les Républicains's regional alliance with Macron's centrist La République en marche (LREM) party in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur spurred psychodrama in the Républicains camp in May, even leading two heavyweights to quit the party. The far right is once again a serious contender in the south of France with the turncoat former Les Républicains cabinet minister Thierry Mariani leading the charge for Le Pen's party on the Côte d'Azur.
The left, meanwhile, has been conspicuous for its lack of broad-based alliances heading into these races. The only regional race that managed to bring the full palette of leftist forces together as a united front was the northern Hauts-de-France. There, Greens candidate Karima Delli will lead a joint list representing the green Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, the Socialist Party, the far-left France Unbowed and the French Communist Party into battle. Elsewhere, the clarion call of unity will have to wait, depending on circumstances after the June 20 first round.
Springboard to 2022?
These elections in the shadow of the race for the Elysée Palace also have some individual candidates more or less explicitly jockeying for a shot at that ultimate prize.
Three incumbent regional presidents – all former Les Républicains party cabinet ministers under ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy – entered this race more or less explicitly seeking to parlay their re-election into the conservative nomination for 2022. Two of them, Valérie Pécresse, who heads the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris, and Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region, have pledged to quit politics if they lose. The other is Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region chief Laurent Wauquiez. All are favourites in their respective races, although Bertrand has his work cut out in the north against far-right challenger Sébastien Chenu.
Macron minister cameos
No fewer than 13 serving cabinet ministers are standing for election on Sunday – including Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin running as down-ballot candidates in the Hauts-de-France – although few have leading roles in these regional and departmental races.
Macron's La République en marche didn't exist yet the last time these elections were held, and expectations are low. The fledgling entity has yet to set down strong roots in local government and France's panoply of nationwide mid-term votes tends to disadvantage the party in government. Two members of the government – Marc Fesneau, running to preside Centre-Val-de-Loire, and Geneviève Darrieussecq, running to head Nouvelle-Aquitaine – are thought to have an outside chance at making a splash for Team Macron in their own right. But the objective for LREM is largely of the kingmaker variety: to keep 2017 presidential election finalist Le Pen from gaining traction for 2022 with her party's first-ever regional win.