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%

The legislative elections in Brittany

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?