You won’t find too much in the British press about the other parliamentary elections our neighbours are having. No, not Devon and the English south-west, but Brittany. The first round of the French hexagon’s legislative assembly elections takes place in a week’s time, just three days after the UK general election. So what’s going on over the water?
Our electoral system is designed to prevent the emergence of challenger parties and reinforce the dominance of a two-party system. The electoral system of the French Fifth Republic – first past the post but over two ballots – was designed to prevent the emergence of centrist parties and give a clear choice between right and left. Both mechanisms are creaking under the pressure of a more diverse and multi-party society.
In Britain (although not Northern Ireland) the disassociation between the voting system and the party system is starkest. The 2017 general election is taking us temporarily back to a Victorian two-party system (with different parties involved in England and Scotland) and the possibility after a Tory victory and subsequent boundary changes of a permanently entrenched Conservative majority. In France the victory of Macron in the recent Presidential elections has accompanied the rise of an entirely new centrist party – En Marche!. In the UK the move towards a more diverse party system that better reflects society is being quashed; in contrast in France, despite the electoral system, diversity is flowering.
While in the UK there’s an average of five candidates per seat, in France the average is 14 as 7,882 candidates compete for 577 seats (contrast our 3,303 for 650). Voters can hardly complain there’s no choice. Parties are on offer from the Trotskyite left (sometimes two of them) to the royalist far right with all complexions in between. This contrasts with the pallid policies and the unchallenged assumptions (income tax is a burden, growth is always good, Trident must be renewed etc.) around which British elections are fought.
In Brittany of course, we have the extra dimension of Breton regionalism. While MK has gone AWOL in this election, in most of the 37 Breton constituencies voters have a choice of not one but two regionalist candidates.
On the left, the alliance forged for the regional elections in 2015 between the Union démocratique bretonne (UDB) and Christian Troadec’s Mouvement Bretagne et Progrès (MBP) is maintained. Its candidates are standing under the banner Oui la Bretagne (OLB). OLB describes itself as a coalition of regionalists, autonomists, greens and of the left. It’s putting forward 34 candidates. Of these at least 22 are UDB members, while at least seven are from the MBP. The latter are found mainly in the west, where Carhaix-Plouguer in Finistere provides the core of Troadec’s personal vote. It’s here where the OLB will probably score its highest vote.
The UDB’s first ever legislative assembly member Paul Molac is standing again in Ploermel, but not as a UDB candidate. Molac was given a free run in the 2012 elections by the Parti socialiste (PS) and the Greens. Since then he has drifted away from the UDB although, reflecting the UDB’s disenchantment with the Greens, he joined the Socialist group on the Regional Council. In March he declared his support for Macron and this time he’s standing for En Marche! Nonetheless, Molac is not being opposed by OLB.
Neither is he facing opposition from the other regionalist grouping led by the Parti Breton (PB). The PB, created in 2002, denies the right-left label and positions itself as a catch-all, centrist party with a long-term aim of an independent Breton Republic within the EU. For this election it has allied with the Mouvement 100% la force éco-citoyenne. Led by the Alliance écologiste indépendante (AEI), this consists of several citizens’ movements, green groups and micro-parties across the hexagon, as well as a few small regionalist parties. Like the PB (and Macron) it claims to transcend the old right-left divide, although its economic policies look distinctly Blairite.
In Brittany the coalition, headed by the PB, is standing under the label 100% Bretagne. It brings together the PB with the Parti Fédéraliste Européen (PFE) and two even smaller movements – Alliance Fédéraliste Bretonne and En Avant Bretagne. Two thirds of its 31 candidates in Brittany can be identified as PB members, with five from the PFE, while four have not been identified.
No candidate from either the OLB or 100% Bretagne is likely to make the second round. Instead, the two formations will be seeking to improve on past performances at legislative elections, which have been similar to that of MK, a fairly miserable 2% or less. But with the familiar soft regionalist option of the PS in meltdown, does this election offers some novel opportunities?