Mixed fortunes for regionalist parties in French elections

Was there anything for micro-nationalist and regionalist parties to cheer about in the elections across the French hexagon on Sunday?

Most disappointingly, just as in the Cornish case, Breton regionalism still fails to make an electoral impact. The 33 candidates of Oui la Bretagne (OLB), led by Christian Troadec and bringing together L’Union Démocratique Bretonne (UDB) and the Mouvement Bretagne et Progrès (MBP), achieved a poor median vote of 1.2%, no better than the UDB’s performance on its own back in 2002. For the UDB, this was the worst result for 20 years, with a median score of just 1.0%. The MBP did better, with a median score of 2.2%. Troadec himself came third with 13.9% of the vote in his Finistere heartland. But this was considerably down on his vote in 2012, when he obtained 19.9%. Meanwhile, former UDB member and ‘autonomist’ Paul Molac, now standing for President Macron’s La République En Marche!, was the sole candidate in the region to be elected on the first ballot.

Spurning the left. Breton voters showed no greater inclination to vote for the centre-right Parti Breton (PB). Its 26 candidates averaged under 1%. More generally, La République En Marche! confronts 16 candidates of the left and 21 from the right in next Sunday’s second ballot in Brittany and looks set to sweep up the majority of Breton seats. Yet turnout in Brittany, as elsewhere, was low, between 50 and 60%. The centrist revolution doesn’t appear to be galvanising huge enthusiasm.

In the rest of the hexagon, there were some brighter spots for regionalist parties. Not particularly in Occitania however. Although the Partit Occitan improved its median score, it continues to poll relatively dismally, at under 2%, while the number of candidates it stands has fallen from 42 in 2002 to just five this year.

The Ipparalde (northern Basque Country) presents a more encouraging picture. There, the leftist Euskal Herria Bai steadily progresses, increasing its vote for the fourth election running, as did the Parti Nationaliste Basque, although the latter remains well behind. Basque nationalists are now winning around 10% of the vote in the three Basque constituencies.

For many years Catalan nationalism in France has been weak, struggling to win over 1% of the vote in the department of Pyrénées-Orientales. This time it was boosted by a regional reform last year that united the former Languedoc-Rousillon region with Midi- Pyrénées to form a new mega-region of Occitanie. This recentralization spurred resentment in French Catalonia and the formation of Oui au Pays Catalan to demand recognition of the unique status of Pyrénées-Orientales, decentralization and the protection of the Catalan identity. It managed to win a mean vote of just over 3%, still fairly feeble but a big improvement on the previous Catalan nationalist vote in the region

Regionalism in Alsace was formerly associated more with the far right. That’s now changed. Unser Land in Alsace also benefited from the state’s regional redrawing, which abolished the region of Alsace and lumped it in with Lorraine and Champagne-Ardennes. Unser Land was founded in 2009 as a progressive party fighting for recognition of Alsace, replacing the Union du peuple Alsacien (UA). The UPA had struggled to capture over 2% of the vote in this right-leaning region. Nonetheless Unser Land managed a mean 8.1% on Sunday, with one candidate making it to the second ballot.

While the clumsy and insensitive restructuring of France’s regions by the previous Socialist Government has re-ignited Alsatian regionalism (and to an extent Catalan) the biggest regionalist success was again seen in Corsica. There the nationalist movement, for years split between moderate and radical wings, came together to win a historic victory in the regional elections of 2015. Pè a Corsica (For Corsica) continued that alliance into these elections, which saw the vote for Corsican nationalism grow to almost 30%, a steady rise since 1997. In three of the four Corsican constituencies Pè a Corsica will be present in the second ballot next Sunday, in two instances against the right-wing Les Républicains and one against En Marche!.

Median vote of regionalist/nationalist parties in French legislative elections, 2002-2017

2002 2007 2012 2017
Brittany UDB/OLB 1.2% 1.5% 2.1% 1.2%
PB 1.2% 1.5% 0.8%
Occitania PO 0.4% 0.7% 0.7% 1.9%
Basque Country EH Bai/PNB 6.5% 6.3% 8.1% 9.9%
Catalonia 1.2% 1.0% 3.4%
Alsace UPA/UL 0.7% 1.8% 5.7%
Corsica 5.1% 12.0% 22.4% 29.8%

Brittany votes

How did Brittany vote on Sunday in the first round of the Presidential election for the French hexagon? Bretons gave a much clearer victory to the centrist Macron than France in general. Macron polled about five percentage points higher in Brittany. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s Front National still struggles to gain traction in Brittany, along with western France more generally. Le Pen’s 15% was a full six points lower than she managed across the hexagon.

The traditional Gaullist candidate Fillon and the leftist Melenchon polled at levels similar to their general support. Melenchon just pipped Fillon to second place, despite his Jacobinism and what have been seen as anti-Breton statements. (He described Breton as an intellectual language created by the Nazis during the Second World War). Interestingly, Hamon of the Socialist Party scored rather better in Brittany than elsewhere.

The UDB and the Mouvement Bretagne et Progrès, which have come together to fight the forthcoming legislative elections, declined to advise their supporters how to vote in the first round. Christian Troadec’s attempt to stand as a regionalist candidate had fallen victim to tighter French rules on candidatures which make it very difficult for a regionally based candidate to be nominated. The UDB is now advising its supporters to vote Macron in the second round and the MBP will no doubt follow suit.

Overall, votes for leftist candidates in Brittany combined totalled about 31%, with 29% for Macron and 24% for the traditional right (plus 15% for the FN). All of which suggests the legislative elections, the first ballot of which will be a few days after the UK’s general election, may well be unpredictable.

Corsica today, Cornwall in 2017?

I’m very glad to have been proved wrong (yet again!) in predicting the left would win the regional elections in Corsica. In fact yesterday the combined regionalist/nationalist list of Femu a Corsica/Corsica Libera swept to a historic victory in the second round of regional elections. The regionalists scored 35.3% of the vote, up from 29.4% in 2010. This was almost enough to give them an overall majority. As it stands they have 24 seats in the Corsican Assembly, out of 51. This is an increase from 15 in 2010.

The result in Corsica
The result in Corsica

In the region of Languedoc-Roussillon/Midi-Pyrenees the joint list of Socialists, Greens, Front de Gauche and Partit Occitan (PO) won the election, but I haven’t yet been able to confirm the presence of PO representatives among the successful candidates.

The overall results in France/Brittany were as follows

Second round results

Brittany France (1st round)
centre-left 51.4% 31.7% (37.5%)
centre-right 29.7% 40.6% (31.7%)
FN 18.9% 27.4% (27.7%)
Leading party by departement
Leading party by departement

Incidentally, how is it that almost all results in France down to commune level are known within two hours of the count whereas it can take up to 18 hours for counts to be completed in the UK?

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.

The French regional elections: the prospects for regionalist parties.

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.Oui-à-une-Bretagne-autonome-réunie-solidaire

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.ncli

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.choisir nos regions

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.)

Basque Country
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.

Northern Catalonia
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.

facFinally, 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.