Today, French citizens vote in the first round of regional elections. Sparse media attention in the UK has as usual been dominated by English journalists’ fascination with the far right, predicting the Front national (FN) is poised to make big gains. Having been proved completely wrong about Oldham West we can only hope the pundits are equally useless when it comes to events across the Channel. Probably not though, after the Paris attacks of a few weeks ago. The FN, already polling strongly before that outrage, has since seen its support rise by around 6%, although most of this comes from the more moderate, traditional French right.
But first, how do the French regional elections work? To those used to our simpletons’ system, they can seem complex. Voters are presented with party lists, many of which involve alliances of parties. For example, in Brittany Les Republicains (think Sarkozy) have combined in a list with the more centrist L’union des dėmocrates et independants (UDI) and the Mouvement dėmocrate (Modem). Any list that gains 10% or more today goes forward to a second round next Sunday. However, lists that gain more than 5% can be re-combined between the two rounds. The incentive for doing this is that the leading list in the second round is given a bonus of a quarter of the seats, the rest being allocated proportionally.
So how are things looking for ethnoregionalist parties in the French hexagon?
Let’s start with our cousins over the water. The Breton regionalist political scene has fragmented somewhat over the past few years. In this election, three of the eleven lists on offer are broadly regionalist/nationalist. The most promising is Oui la Bretagne. This is headed by Christian Troadec, Carhaix-Plouguer’s favourite son and leader of the Mouvement Bretagne et progrės (MBP), founded in 2010. Troadec was a key figure in the campaign of the Bonnets rouges in 2013 against the Socialist Government’s tax on road freight transport, viewed as disastrous for Breton farmers.
The governing Parti socialiste (PS) also lost the confidence of Breton autonomists by failing to take the opportunity of a major redrawing of regional boundaries to re-attach Loire Atlantique to the administrative Breton region. In response, the leftist Union dėmocratique bretonne (UDB) has joined with Troadec and a few dissident socialists. Their list has been scoring 6-9% in the opinion polls and has a good chance of a presence in the second round and seats on the regional council.
However, the UDB is not entirely united in these elections. In 2010 it gained regional councillors as part of a joint list with les Verts (Greens) and at first supported the PS regional administration. A few of its activists have stuck with the PS list, while the Greens have their own.
On the right of Oui la Bretagne is Notre Chance, L’Indėpendance. This is led by the Parti Breton (PB), with the support of a small green party, the Alliance ecologiste indėpendante (AEI). As its name implies, the list aims at an independent Brittany, while having a centre-right orientation. With around 1% in the polls it’s unlikely to survive today’s vote.
Also unlikely to enter the second round negotiations is the leftist list led by Breizhistance. This group (strapline ‘Independence and socialism’) was founded in 2009 by militants from Emgann. Since then, it’s put up candidates in local elections and the 2012 legislative elections (including one in Redon also backed by the UDB and les Verts).
The fifth historic Breton department – Loire Atlantique – remains stranded as part of Pays de la Loire. Here, the four Breton ethnoregionalist parties (UDB, MBP, PB and Breizhistance) have uniquely managed to combine in an independent list called Choisir nos rėgions et rėunifier la Bretagne. In October this recorded an encouragingly high 4% in a poll (surprising as Loire Atlantique is only one of five departments that make up the region). Since then its polling has declined to 1-2%. Nonetheless, its performance in Loire Atlantique is worth watching closely.
While Breton regionalist parties have castigated Hollande’s Socialists for not making Brittany bigger, the reduction in the number of regions in the French hexagon from 22 to 13 means that most French ethnoregionalist parties find themselves marooned in ever larger regional territories (a bit like MK and the old South West region in fact.)
Take the Ipparalde (northern Basque Country) for example. This only comprises the western half of the department of Pyrėnėes Atlantiques in any case. The region of Aquitaine, in which Pyrėnėes-Atlantiques was a part, has now been joined with Limousin and Poitou-Charentes to form a mega-region of which the Basque Country is a very small part.
In consequence, the main Basque party, Euskal Herria Bai (EH Bai), is calling on its supporters to ‘voter blanc‘ in today’s elections. EH Bai is currently one of the more successful regionalist parties in the hexagon. Since its foundation in 2007 as an electoral coalition of Abertzaleen Batasuna, Eusko Alkartasuna and Batasuna. EH Bai has steadily increased its support. It won an average 7.3% in the three Basque constituencies in the legislative elections of 2012 and 15.3% in departmental elections earlier this year.
In contrast, at the other end of the Pyrenees the Catalan parties, the Unitat Catalana, Convergence dėmocratique Catalogne and the Gauche de Catalogne du Nord (the northern branch of the Catalan Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC)) struggle to make much electoral impact. They didn’t even stand in the most recent elections in Pyrėnėes-Orientales and won less than 2% in previous elections, even at local level. But in today’s elections, the ERC is present in a list led by les Verts and including the Front de Gauche. This is predicted to get more than 10% in the combined region of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrėnėes.
The Partit Occitan (PO) is also present in the same list. Indeed, the PO, which describes itself as the ‘Occitan Ecologist Left’, is actively involved in three mega-regions. As well as Languedoc etc. it’s part of la Vague Citoyenne (Citizens’ Wave) list in Aquitaine etc.. This stands under the strapline ‘socialism, democracy, ecology’ but is polling at an insignificant level. However, in Provence-Alpes/Côte d’Azur the PO is part of a centre-left coalition led by the PS.
For a small party that has struggled to gain over 1% when standing independently, the PO has succeeded in making the most of the French electoral system, which encourages cross-party collaboration and tactical alliances. Allying itself sometimes with the Greens and sometimes with the PS, the PO has managed to obtain representation at local and regional level on the coattails of broader leftist coalitions.
Continuing our journey around the hexagon in an anti-clockwise direction, the autonomists of Savoy failed to get their nominations sorted in time. While centre-right Savoyard nationalism seems to have wilted, the same has happened in Alsace, where regionalism has long been associated with the right, not the left. Here, the far right Alsace d’Abord came close to 5% in the regional elections of 2010 and had three seats on the regional council back in 1998. Yet it’s now relatively inactive, concentrating on anti-mosque campaigns but swamped on that ground by the FN.
In contrast the centre-left Unser Land (UL) – ‘our land’ in English – did very well in the departmental elections earlier this year. The 22 candidates (technically binomes) of Unser Land (a merger of the Union du peuple alsacien and Fer’s Elsass in 2009) scored an average 13.8% of the vote compared with just 5.5% for Alsace d’Abord‘s single effort. UL’s support was buoyed up by a wave of anger at the Government’s decision to abolish the Alsace region and incorporate it with Champagne-Ardennes and Lorraine.
The UL has now joined with the AEI and smaller regionalist parties in Lorraine and Moselle to lead an independent regionalist list in these elections. It’s polling around 3-5% in the new ‘region’ but a lot more in Alsace itself.
Finally, heading back south, we arrive at Corsica, which has an assembly with greater powers than the French regional councils. Unaffected by boundary changes and smaller than Cornwall, Corsica provides a psephological first for France. In Corsica an independent autonomist list is actually leading recent polls, courtesy of a split in the moderate right wing camp. The list is that of Femu a Corsica (Faisons la Corse) led by Gilles Simeoni. This regrouped the moderate autonomists of the Parti de la nation Corse and Chjama Naziunale, along with some Corsican Greens, in 2010. In the French legislative elections of 2012 it scored an impressive 16.4% of the vote and is now polling nearer 20%.
The more radical nationalist Corsica Libera (CL), which in 2009 grouped the parties that are heirs to the militant direct action FLNC (Front de libėration nationale corse), is also polling quite strongly at 8%. Meanwhile, there’s a third nationalist list put together by U Rinnovu, which broke away from CL in 2012. It’s relatively insignificant however and is unlikely to be joining a possible combined regionalist/nationalist list for the second round, when that list has a real chance of being the leading list.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this lengthy blog then you’re just the person who’ll be keen to read an analysis of the first round results from a regionalist perspective. This will appear here sometime later next week.