Less than a year before the Presidential elections in April and May 2022, French people decided in votes on 20 and 27 June who will run their Regions and Departments. Although the Departments (the equivalent of English counties) lost most of their powers in 2014 reforms, the Regions (12 in mainland France, plus Corsica and 5 overseas) are significant political and economic entities. As a result, they have become important political battlefields and a step before national politics. The primary takes of these elections are:
- Abstention. A 65 % record abstention rate puts pressure on French democracy.
- Continuity at the regional level. In the same way as they maintained their positions in last year’s municipal elections, right and left traditional parties held on to all their Regions.
- Local is not national. Next year’s Presidential elections might still have a very different outcome.
A fragmented and contested political landscape
The record abstention is due to several factors. There’s been a steady trend towards abstention over the last 40 years in all political elections; exacerbated by the post-lockdown situation with many, especially the young (80% abstention for the under 35s), having other priorities. There was a lack of information about the competencies and power of the Regions. But it also points to an underlying mistrust in all the political class.
French national politics has undergone profound change over recent years. The traditional left/right party divide – sometimes challenged by the Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement national, which had no real capacity to reach government – has given way to a fragmented political landscape with five or six big players. Macron’s centrist movement and the radical-left have entered the political scene, while the Greens have become a direct competitor for their former Socialists allies.
But if Macron and the far-right and left parties now dominate at the national level, the traditional centre-right and centre-left still hold sway in local politics where they have a track record of sound local management. This was evident in last year’s municipal elections and again in these regional elections. The newer parties/movements are built around strong personalities at the national level, but they have less developed local roots.
Local is not national
Given the record abstention and the specificity of these regional elections, drawing lessons or making predictions for next year’s Presidential elections comes with a health warning. But commentators are asking whether the centre-right and centre-left, after their successes in local and regional elections, can prevent a Macron v Le Pen final round run-off in 2022 Presidentials?
The Républicains are the main winners from these elections. Their three Presidential contenders – Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez – all succeeded in keeping control in their Regions. Can the party now benefit from this momentum, be swift enough to unite, gain enough credibility on the national level and find space between Macron and Le Pen?
On the left side, Socialists did well where they were incumbent, but came out neck-to-neck with the Greens in all other regions. The two parties share the same electorate. On the far-left, Mélenchon’s party and popularity are on the decline. Tensions are strong between all left-wing contenders. The fact that these elections did not clearly identify a winner between them will not facilitate unity.
Marine Le Pen failed in her main objective, winning a region. Can this affect her future? Is the Rassemblement national just not able to assemble a majority in major elections, despite its recentring strategy? On the other hand, Le Pen’s popularity remains high in the national polls, and she’s shown before her capacity to bounce back at Presidential elections.
Emmanuel Macron’s party did not do well, following disappointing results at last year’s local elections. But he limited his personal involvement and has always sought to maintain a distinction between his role as President and the fate of his party. In the polls, he remains in surprisingly good shape after some tough years. The ‘yellow vest’ crisis, aborted pension reform and sometimes hesitant management of the Covid-19 crisis have not dented his core electoral support of around 25-28%. Macron’s strategy remains unchanged. By weakening the traditional parties and consolidating his core electorate, he maximizes his chances of coming out in the first two in the first round of the Presidential elections for another run-off against Marine Le Pen. This remains the most likely scenario, unless momentum puts the right-wing back in the game.
To achieve this, as well as continuing to present himself as the best bulwark against Le Pen, Macron needs to manage the exit from Covid-19, and get the focus back on economic reforms and Europe. His pandemic balancing act between health care and economic measures, to save the economy “whatever it costs”, has been broadly well-received. Still, he wants to be judged on his reforms and will aim for a last symbolic package before the Presidential elections.
Macron is discussing with the government a second recovery plan, or more precisely a long-term investment plan, to build on his first recovery plan. It’s likely to focus on research, where national pride was hurt by the slow development of a “French” Covid-19 vaccine and boosting investment and industrial relocation in critical sectors, including health and electronics. The government also wants to ensure that resources allocated by the first recovery plan are aligned with targeted strategies, notably in digital strategy, AI etc.
The debate has restarted on the thorny question of pension reform. Macron remains keen to tackle this, but the politics are fraught. He may settle for announcing an amended pension reform to be voted on after the elections. A social policy summit in early July may set the scene for this and other limited social reforms.
France will hold the Presidency of the European Union in the first semester of 2022 (coinciding with the Presidential elections). This will be a platform for Macron to show that he can lead and shape Europe after Brexit and countering Le Pen’s eurosceptic agenda. Priorities will include the digital and climate agendas. Defence will also figure on top of the French agenda.
Corentin Lescroart is a Consultant at Flint. He wrote this piece with input from Flint Senior Advisers Philip Cordery and Julian King. To find out more about how Flint can help you navigate the risks and opportunities of these developments get in touch.