How France’s regional elections will impact its next presidential campaign

How France’s regional elections will impact its next presidential campaign

Regional elections will have an immediate impact on French politics, as parties begin to prepare for the next presidential campaign. For the Socialist government, the time has come to start courting the leftist electorate, and thus Hollande will avoid introducing the unpopular reforms that the country needs.

Local elections always had a tendency to be fought on national issues. After last month’s attacks in Paris, this habit became the norm. As the response to terrorism was in every voter’s mind, political parties tried to differentiate from one another on needed security policies and to criticize the government, thereby putting an end to the sacred national unity against terror.

But these regional elections are also deeply rooted in national issues. Firstly, because the recent regional reform — reducing the number of regions from 22 to 13 — made French regions powerful territories, with some of them counting more citizens and accounting for more economic input than entire European states. As a result, many ambitious and high figures of French politics are running for the regional office, some of them with national ambitions for 2017.

Secondly, this is the last time French voters go to the polls before the launch of the next presidential race, and can thus be seen as the ultimate test for political parties before 2017.

French regions, a new powerful player

The territorial reform introduced in late 2014 created important entities that can now compete with the powerful German Länders both in demographic and economic terms. Although the power entitled to the president of regional councils remains limited, the elected representatives will have authority on regional infrastructure (including on public transport), schools and some funding for businesses.

During the campaign, many candidates made extravagant promises on security — partly in reaction to the terror attacks — or debated on other grounds that would not be part of their responsibilities. Most candidates made pledges to increase spending in order to introduce business friendly measures to create jobs, and to renew the public transportation systems.

In Ile-de-France (the Parisian region that counts 12 million people and is worth a third of French GDP) for instance, both the Socialist and center-right candidates — who are leading the polls and will face each other next Sunday — said they planned to run the metro 24/7, a measure that the Institut Montaigne (a French think-tank) evaluated at €427 millions.

National Front at its best

After the first round of votes, the main indication is the victory of the nationalist party the National Front, who came first in 6 out of 13 contests. The party’s leader Marine Le Pen received over 40% of the votes in the Northern region, a similar score to her niece Marion-Maréchal Le Pen in the Southeastern region of Provence, Alpes Côtes d’Azur. And in the East, the party’s number 2 Florient Phillipot could also win the second round, considering his 10 point lead over the Republican candidate.


What these regions have in common is a high unemployment rate due to a deindustrialization phenomenon — a juicy cocktail for the anti-establishment party. In fact, the first meaning of this vote is that French voters are fed up with the failure of the government to turn around the economy and create jobs. The anti-immigration party also benefits from the recent terror attacks and the wave of islamophobia that has spread throughout the country.

The traditional strategy from establishment parties to demonize the National Front no longer proves effective, because both the Socialist Party (PS) and the Republicans (LR) have failed to overturn a social crisis incarnated by the 10.3% unemployment rate. In fact, the statement by Pierre Gattaz — the leader of France’s main business association — that the NF governing regions would be a catastrophe for businesses did not seem to matter as much to voters as job figures for October. With 42,000 more registered, the number of unemployed French reached 3.59 million.

The three-party system forces a shift in political strategies

The second indication from last Sunday’s vote is that power in France is increasingly defined by a competition between three parties: the ruling Socialists, the Republicans and the National Front. With the next round of voting next Sunday, the Socialists and center-right alliance had to choose whether to unite and form a “Republican Front” to defeat the National Front in some regions, or to stay divided and risk seeing the nationalists win.

When the first strategy made no doubt in previous elections — like last year’s departmental elections when the National Front lost many polls after leading in the first round — this time a Republican Front is highly unlikely. Nicolas Sarkozy (former French President and leader of LR) refused to support Socialist candidates, and the Socialists maintained their candidate in most regions as well.

In the North and South East, even if the left and the right unite in what they call a Republican Front, it is unlikely that they would be able to defeat the NF. In addition, both the right and the left now feel the need to differentiate from one another ahead of the first round of the next presidential elections in 2017. In fact, Marine Le Pen will probably reach the second round, leaving only one spot for either the Socialist or LR candidate.

At the Republican Party, Sarkozy is openly courting the National Front’s voters with strong statements on Schengen and multiculturalism. On the other end of the party, Alain Juppé seeks a more consensual approach through an alliance with the Center (UDI) for the presidential election. The party is set for an intense internal battle that will be settled in the primaries, with former Prime Minister François Fillon and other ambitious rising stars of the party also candidates.

Election is coming, reforms will wait

For the Socialists, negotiations with the Left Coalition are the only hope in order to retain control over a few regions in these elections. But these regional elections are also another wake-up call for Hollande after last year’s other disappointing results in local elections. The President needs to start implementing a strategy in order to have a chance in 2017.

Next year will be the time for him to start negotiating with the rebels within his party and try to create unity, while courting Green and other Leftist voters who are opposed to the government’s current reformist political line. As a result, fiscal discipline — highly unpopular among leftist voters — will be a collateral victim of a political shift to the left, and the gap between France and Germany on the matter will keep growing. The President has conditioned his running for a second term on his performance on jobs, so that will be the government’s obsession in terms of policies.

But overall, it is the French economy that will probably be the main victim of this upcoming move. With a timid 1% GDP growth forecasted for this year, France still suffers from structural flaws, including an over-regulated labor code.

In the meantime, the main political risk for France and consequently for Europe will come from the presidential elections in 2017. If momentum keeps building for the National Front, Marine le Pen could start introducing her plans to leave the euro, nationalize firms, pour money into civil-service jobs and close borders both to migrants and imports.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Julien Freund

Julien is an analyst with a focus on Europe. He has worked as a lobbyist in Paris and Brussels and has written extensively on the rise of nationalist parties. He holds two master's degrees in geopolitics and international relations and in European relations, and received his BA in economics and social sciences from the Catholic Institute of Paris.