Thursday 14 December 2017
“I cannot prevent the French from being French.” - Charles de Gaulle
A tale of hope and demons. Left and right in the Marseille municipals
By Jocelyn Evans, Gilles Ivaldi
17 February 2014 | General | 1909 words
The UMP right-wing opposition is set to win the municipal race in March, but the city of Marseille is giving the socialists one faint ray of hope through the current political gloom.

The latest IFOP and CSA city-wide polls suggest that the city could potentially swim against the tide and swing to the left in spring. Left and right are neck and neck in the race down Marseille’s canebière, with a revitalised FN lying in wait.

What are the chances that the left could win Marseille? Together with Paris and Lyon, Marseille provides the third case of French multidistrict municipal elections to which we are dedicating a blog. It shows different patterns of party competition at district level, manufacturing disproportional municipal majorities. The election is organized across 8 districts (secteurs), each comprising two arrondissements. Political competition is structured by a sociological cleavage between the socially deprived areas in the northern quartiers and the more bourgeois arrondissements of the centre and the south.

Sectors won by the left and the right in 2008

Marseille has much less spatial polarization than Paris, however. The 2008 ballot demonstrated a very tight race between the two dominant political blocs. The first round gave a plurality of the vote to the left (44 per cent) as opposed to 41 per cent for the right, yet resulting in a right-wing majority –an outcome similar to that of the 1995 election where Gaudin had won the city council with just over one third of the first-round vote. In 2008, the left won sectors nos 1, 2, 7 and 8 in the North-Eastern part, the right sectors nos 3, 4, 5 and 6 in the city center and south. This distribution of support across the north/south divide gives an advantage to the right: the four sectors held by the UMP and its allies return 54 seats as opposed to 47 seats in districts controlled by the left. In 2008, Gaudin retained a narrow majority of 51 seats, as opposed to 50 for the left (PS 36, PC 7 and Greens 6) and one for the FN.

Municipal balance of forces* in Marseille: 1983-2008

Election Left Right FN
Municipal 1983 46.0 54.0 ––
Municipal 1989 54.1 30.1 13.3
Municipal 1995 41.0 36.4 22.0
Municipal 2001 39.0 43.3 17.8**
Municipal 2008 44.0 41.0 8.8

*first round % of valid vote cast;
** total FN+MNR

For the socialists, then, electoral victory in Marseille would provide some short-term political good news, and allow them to reclaim one of their former bastions. Marseille has been a PS stronghold during most of the post-war period up to the electoral swing to the right in 1995, under the dominance of socialist baron Gaston Defferre. Local support for the left has increased since 2008, with François Hollande receiving an absolute majority (50.9 per cent) of the vote in the presidential runoff, and the socialist legislative candidates winning four of the city’s seven constituencies. An elderly Jean-Claude Gaudin (74 this year) is seeking re-election for the fourth time after over forty years in local politics – no ‘sophomore surge’ here. Some of his supporters have already voiced doubts, but the bulk of centre-right (UDI) and conservative (UMP) troops are united behind the incumbent mayor, a cohesive strategy which has probably been facilitated by Gaudin’s personal legacy as established local leader of the non Gaullist right (UDF-RI).

Main frontrunners in the Marseille municipals

From left: Jean-Claude Gaudin (UMP), Patrick Mennucci (PS), Stéphane Ravier (FN), Jean-Marc Coppola (PCF), Jean-Luc Bennahmias (MODEM)

Whilst Gaudin might stress local economic development projects and last year’s celebration of Marseille-Provence as the 2013 European Capital of Culture, his record in office is strongly criticized by the opposition for his immobilisme, a record high municipal debt and accusations of political patronage. Marseille voters are unhappy with the state of the city’s cleanliness and system of waste management. Like other French voters, they express concerns about taxes and crime. In contrast to the more bourgeois Paris or Lyon, the city remains distinctively poor with high unemployment at 17 per cent, strong inequalities in income and more than a quarter (28 per cent) of the population living in poverty. According to the latest CSA poll, over two-thirds (68 per cent) of Marseille voters are hoping for a ‘profound change in the city’s administration’ next March, compared with less than half (47 per cent) of the national electorate.

Following a deleterious primary campaign last year, socialist frontrunner Patrick Mennucci is rallying all his former rivals as well as Marseille’s ecologists. The latter will present joint lists with the PS in all sectors and their local leader, Karim Zéribi, will represent the left-wing coalition in sector 5. In October, Mennucci won 57.2 per cent of the primary vote against his main opponent Samia Ghali, the party’s rising star from the inner-city sectors. Together they should be able to unite all sections of the local socialists, in the bourgeois centre where Mennucci has his power base, as well as in the popular areas of the northern quarters. Ghali’s North African heritage should appeal to ethnic minority voters in the 7th and 8th sectors, while her ‘tough on crime’ profile should help block too many great a swing to the FN from the PS’s traditional blue collar electorate. The Marseille socialists must however try and free themselves from the longstanding political domination of Jean-Noël Guérini, leader of the PS in the department, and currently under investigation for fraud and criminal conspiracy for which he is likely to be expelled from the PS. They must also face direct competition from both left-wing radicals and the neo-communist alliance. The independent list presented by Jacques Soubeyrand, which is linked to the PRG, could in fact prove Guérini’s secret weapon against his former party comrades. Under the lead of Jean-Marc Coppola (PCF), the FG is also going independently into the March election, and its centrifugal first-round strategy against the local socialists is mobilizing left-wing supporters who are disillusioned with Hollande’s social-liberal turn in the national arena.

The MODEM is divided over coalition strategies, reflecting the dilemma faced by French parties across the different electoral levels. Whilst Bayrou’s national leadership is increasingly leaning back towards the mainstream UMP via Borloo’s centre-right UDI, local MODEM representatives Jean-Luc Bennahmias and Christophe Madrolle are refusing to support Gaudin. In 2008, the centrists had won 5.5 per cent of the city’s vote and a number of centrist voters had already switched to the left in left-right runoffs. Since then, the MODEM has lost ground in Marseille, totalling a mere 1.4 per cent in the 2012 legislatives, and the party is contemplating very low polling figures in the municipals. This might force them into a tactical alliance with the ragtag coalition that former Olympique de Marseille football club president Pape Diouf is trying to set up with the help of dissident EELV activists unhappy with Zéribi’s allegiance to Mennucci. While support for Diouf is currently low in the polls, his independent lists and ‘place au peuple’ style might take votes away from the socialists in critical sectors. On the bright side, the Pape Diouf candidacy might mobilize left-wing abstentionists and take them into the second round to the benefits of the socialists.

Unorthodox political leaders?

From left: Samia Ghali (PS), Jean-Noël Guérini (PS), Pape Diouf(Independent)

The most imminent threat comes of course from the FN. Unlike other large cities like Paris or Lyon, Marseille has been home to the French far right since the mid-1980s. In 1986, the FN lists won a quarter (24.2 per cent) of the city’s vote. The local strengths of the party were well in evidence in 1995 where the FN received 22 per cent of the vote and captured 9 municipal seats. The 1999 split by Mégret significantly hampered efforts by the FN to block Gaudin’s first re-election in 2001, although the then dominant MNR progressed to the runoff in five sectors. In 2008, following its electoral debacle in the 2007 national elections, the FN suffered heavy losses in Marseille, down to 8.8 per cent of the municipal vote and a single council seat in the 7th sector.

This year, Stéphane Ravier, a prominent local notable and regional councillor – he led the FN list against Bruno Mégret in sector 7 in 2001– promises to jostle the old parties. And he has the means to fulfil his ambitions: in the 2012 legislatives, the FN has made an impressive come back in Marseille, winning 20.9 per cent of the city’s vote. The current political climate also looks very propitious: issues of law-and-order and local taxes are topping the municipal agenda and the home of The French Connection has become synonymous with drug-related violence in recent years. Chances that the FN could win a sector mayorship are slim but its electoral presence could disrupt the two-party race. According to current polls, the FN is set to progress to the decisive round across all eight sectors and could possibly cause severe damage to the UMP in sectors nos 3 and 6, decisively tipping the election to the left.

So, current polls effectively tie the right at 42 per cent in the second-round with the left at 41 per cent, with the FN trailing malevolently at 17 per cent. If we factor in the multidistrict mechanic and relative distribution of forces across the eight sectors based on the 2012 legislatives, the 2014 election is likely to result in a ‘hung’ municipal council and relative majority for the left with an estimated 49 out of 101 seats, against 43 for the right and 9 for the FN (see table below). In Marseille, then, like in the rest of the country, the PS might well end up as collateral damage of Hollande’s unpopularity. Gaudin evidently understands this and is happily playing the campaign nationalization card against Mennucci.

Predicted number of municipal seats*

    Estimated second-round vote Projected seats
Secteur Seats % Left % Right % FN Bonus seats (PLM) Left Right FN
1 11 47,1 41,1 11,8 6 8 2 1
2 8 60,9 25,8 13,3 4 6 1 1
3 11 44,0 42,7 13,2 6 8 2 1
4 15 34,0 54,0 12,0 8 2 12 1
5 15 31,3 49,6 19,1 8 2 12 1
6 13 38,2 42,6 19,2 7 2 10 1
7 16 45,2 30,3 24,5 8 12 2 2
8 12 56,8 22,7 20,5 6 9 2 1
MARSEILLE 101 41 42 17   49 43 9

*Seat forecast based on CSA poll of 28 January 2014, adjusted for district polarization in the 2012 legislatives

On the right, the main question would then be whether the FN could use its position as power-broker and break the cordon sanitaire. Stéphane Ravier has not yet indicated which strategy his party will pursue after the election. However, as we have already noted elsewhere, the FN’s municipal charter calls explicitly for alliances with local politicians of the right in the field and demonstrates a more conciliatory attitude towards cooperating with the mainstream. Last year, Gaudin did shut the door on a possible FN-UMP pact in Marseille. Then again, his personal record of the 1980s tells a different tale, and shows that he has been prone to building tactical alliances with local members of the FN in the past. Old demons could well return to haunt the UMP in Marseille.

Next March, all eyes will turn to the critical 3rd and 6th sectors which are likely to be the heart of the Marseille election battle. A recent poll in the third sector suggests that socialist Minister Marie-Arlette Carlotti could win the runoff with the unintentional help of an electorally revitalized FN. Let us note here that this outcome is very similar to our multidistrict forecast based on current city-wide polls. As the table above shows, this would give an additional six majority bonus seats to the left , taking them to 49 seats, still possibly short a couple of seats to win a majority. In sector 6, Christophe Masse (PS) will be taking his chances against UMP MP and deputy-mayor Valérie Boyer. With a total of 13 seats, this sector will be crucial in terms of the final balance of power between the left and the right.


Welcome to '500Signatures', for analysis and commentary on French politics and elections

This blog is produced by Jocelyn Evans (University of Leeds) and Gilles Ivaldi (University of Nice)

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posts have been published
since 10 January 2012

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Jocelyn Evans [@JocelynAJEvans] is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds

Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in political science based at the University of Nice



- Forecasting the FN vote in Second-Order elections (updated 12 May 2014)

- Forecasting the FN vote in Second-Order elections (Jan. 2014)

- Polling scores by polling type (CATI v CAWI) (updated 20 April 2012)

- Estimating Marine Le Pen's vote in the 2012 presidentials: an experiment (November 2011)

- Data for the 2011 expert forecast survey (in CSV file)



Last modified on Monday 25 April 2016
Copyright Gilles Ivaldi - @2012-2014