The French regional elections 2: the performance of regionalist parties

How did regionalist parties in France fare in the first round of last Sunday’s elections? (If you haven’t already read it, you can find the context here). There were one or two positives and one major disappointment.

Overall, the French opinion polls turned out to be broadly accurate, correctly forecasting that the rise of the Front National (FN) would be at the expense of the traditional right Les Républicains and their centre-right allies. In Brittany, the polls were predicting 6-8% for the joint list of the Mouvement Bretagne et progrės (MBP) and Union dėmocratique bretonne (UDB), led by Christian Troadec. Unfortunately, they were right, with this list – Oui la Bretagne – ending up with 6.7% of the vote.

This was technically enough to fuse with a list winning over 10% and gain some representatives in the second round. But it was not to be. In Brittany, the Parti socialiste (PS) list, led by regional patron (also Minister of Defence and one time UDB member from 1970-74) Jean-Yves Le Drian, was well out in front last week, with over a third of the vote. This meant Le Drian had no need for fusion even with Les Verts (also on 6.7%), let alone the regionalists. Brittany is one of the few regions where no joint PS/Verts/ Front de Gauche list is on offer in tomorrow’s second round, Morever, both Les Verts and the UDB lose the regional councillors they won in 2010, while the combined regionalist/green vote slipped from 16.5% in 2010 to 14.6% last Sunday.

Christian Troadec after the vote
Christian Troadec after the vote

Troadec admitted to being disappointed at not getting past the 10% barrier and has refused to advise his supporters which way to vote in the second round. More surprisingly, for the first time in decades, the UDB has also refused to endorse the PS in the second round. Although it stops short of placing the Socialists, Sarkozyites and FN in the same bag, it’s blaming PS Government policies, at least partially, for the rise of the FN and the half of the electorate who couldn’t be bothered to vote.

Looking further ahead and trying to put a brave face on things, Troadec insisted the 6.7% was an encouraging base to begin to prepare for the Presidential and legislative elections due in 2017. The boy from Carhaix-Plouguer is planning on a Presidential run and seeking to build a regionalist force that can realistically aim at a majority. The key here will be whether the alliance with the UDB holds or whether the latter will be tempted to drift back to their former partners Les Verts.

So why did Troadec’s bid founder? As expected, Oui la Bretagne did well in the Troadecian heartland around Carhaix-Plouguer. In the town itself the list won 45% and came first as it did in a string of communes (parishes) in nearby central Brittany. But many of the 32 communes where it came top (19 in Finistere, nine in Cotes d’Armor and four in Morbihan) were small and rural.

Brittany: islands of regionalism and conservatism surrounded by a PS sea
Brittany: islands of regionalism and conservatism surrounded by a PS sea

Of the bigger towns, only Quimper gave Troadec’s list over 6.7%. In the biggest – Rennes – Oui la Bretagne only won 3.0%; in St Malo it scored 3.4% and in Vannes it was struggling at just 2.9%. Only in Finistere could the list win the 10% necessary to progress. In Cotes d’Armor (6.6%) and Morbihan (5.7%) it was well adrift, while in eastern Brittany, in Ille et Vilaine, it lagged badly at 3.7%. Like MK, Breton regionalism still depends heavily on a personal vote.

If the performance of Oui la Bretagne was disappointing, that of the two other nationalist/regionalist lists of the Parti Breton (PB) on the centre-right and Breizistance on the left was even more so. Both polled under 1% with Breizistance winning the battle of the minnows with 0.6% to the PB’s 0.5%. Both however were well behind even the Trotskyites of Lutte ouvrière, who managed 1.4%.

The joint regionalist list of UDB/MBP/PB and Breizistance in Loire Atlantique turned out also to be underwhelming. It won just 2.67% of the vote, a tiny increase on the 2.62% scored by a Parti Breton list in 2010. In only eight of the 221 communes could it better 5%, these all being in the north west and north of the department.

The results of regionalist parties elsewhere were somewhat more encouraging. The Partit Occitan‘s strategy of joining other party lists worked in Languedoc-Roussillon/Midi Pyrėnėes, where the list led by Les Verts (and including the Catalan ERC) won 10.3% in the first round. This has now fused with the Socialists and looks likely to win the region. In Provence Alpes/ Côte d’Azur, although an alliance with the PS won 16.6%, any chance of PO representation has been scuppered by the decision of the PS leadership to pull out and give a free run to the centre-right in a straight fight with the FN. In south west France, the PO’s presence in an independent list was more indicative of its true electoral strength. It trailed in with 1.9%.

The most encouraging regionalist performance was in Alsace. Riding the wave of dissatisfaction with the region’s abolition, the list led by leftist Unser Land scored a very creditable 4.7% across the mega-region. But in the two departments of Alsace itself it’s become the third force behind the Sarkozyites and the FN, winning 11.1%, the best ever result for a regionalist party in Alsace. Progressive regionalism had now ousted far right regionalism in Alsace, after years of poor results. This shows how events are liable to transform any party’s fortunes.

In Corsica, two regionalist lists won enough votes to proceed to the second round (the bar in Corsica being 7% not 10%). They’ve fused together for the second round. The moderate Femu a Corsica won 17.6%, just failing to become the leading list, while the radical Corsica Libera scored 7.7%. Neither of these lists did quite as well as the polls were suggesting. In fact, the third nationalist list- that of the radical Rinnovu – did better than predicted with 2.6%. Together, the three Coriscan regionalist lists won 27.9% this time compared with 27.8% in 2010, with a slight swing to the radicals. They now face a four-way contest in the second round, which the left will probably win. But the regionalists are in with a chance of second place.

Finally, there’s been a lot of panic, even hysteria, over the rise of the FN vote in France. On the one hand, the FN tripled their vote compared with the last regional elections, from 9% to 28%. Even in Brittany, they’ve managed to get back onto the regional council, although their vote at 18.2% was well below the norm.

On the other hand, the 13.3% of electors who voted for them this time is slightly less than the 14.0% who voted for Marine Le Pen in the 2012 Presidential elections. The French two round system makes it difficult for the far right to win a region. In the two regions where they did best, scoring 41% in the far north east and far south east, the Socialists, who came third, have retired, appealing to a ‘Republican Front’ against the far right. While this may work in the short term, it’s hardly a sustainable strategy in the long run. It’s likely to lead to a loss of votes in future elections to the left – why would socialists vote PS in the first round just to get the right in the second?

And if we consider comparisons with the UK, remember that in England earlier this year Ukip won the support of 9% of the electorate. That was only 4% or so less than the FN in France. And this was in the context of an electoral system less favourable to third parties. In fact, in our first past the post system, any party gaining 41% in an election would be well on course for an overall majority. As in the UK, the neoliberal, ‘technocratic’ parties of the centre-right need to examine their policies in order to confront the populist right, not rely on short-term electoral manoeuvring.

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