|In just under a month’s time, France will go to the polls for a new set of elections – the departmental elections. The ballot structure is new, the districts are new, and they will replace the entire set of sub-regional assemblies in a single, two-round ballot.|
The ballot paper will feature not single candidates, or lists, but ‘binômes’ – tandems consisting of two candidates, one male, one female, by party. France’s proactive attempts to achieve gender parity across its representative institutions has not stopped at legally requiring equal proportions for parties, and here will by definition produce exact parity. In the last cantonal election of 2011, less than a quarter (23.2%) of all first-round candidates were women, up from about 14% in 1992. In the existing conseils généraux (the departmental councils), women currently make up less than a fifth (17.8%) of all councillors elected in 2008 and 2011, with a spread from 3 to 35% across all French departments.
As part of the sweeping regional administrative reforms initiated in 2013, the cantonal map of France – that is, the sub-divisions of departments which constitute the electoral districts– has been entirely redrawn, reducing the number of cantons from 4,055 to 2,074, whilst simultaneously increasing the number of local councillors to 4,108. Largely untouched for over two centuries, the aim of the redistricting was to rebalance the population of the cantons more consistently within departments. As a result, the rolling replacement of cantonal representatives on the conseils généraux has been reset to a single election for all councillors on the new conseils départementaux. The ballot will take place across all metropolitan departments with the exception of Paris and Lyon where the powers and duties of the conseils généraux have been transferred to municipal authorities. All together, parties will run just over 9,000 tandems amounting to a total of 18,192 candidates – figures very similar to those observed in the 2008 and 2011 cantonal elections.
Yet, despite the overhaul of this level of local governance, there has been scant interest, even in France, in the lead-up to the first round on 22 March. The elections seem to be failing to excite the interest of citizens and national politicians alike. For the former, growing political discontent is likely to translate into abstention and support for the FN. Polls anticipate that turnout could once again hit rock bottom, setting a new lowest record at 43%, confirming the general trend in turnout decline in France since the mid-1990s. Recall also that the 2011 cantonals saw a dramatic dropoff in participation at 44.3%, compared with a relatively stable average turnout of 64.1% between 1992 and 2008. With four in ten voters turning out in March, the level of participation would be very similar to that of last year’s European elections, which were already notorious for voter indifference and the spike in support for the radical right.
Part of this is doubtless due to the nature of the departmental councils and the low salience of departmental politics. Unlike municipal elections, which provide high-profile national politicians with their city power-bases, or regional elections which give their presidents significant economic resources, the departmental level attracts many local councillors from municipalities, but few politicians of note – the biggest names on the ballot are probably Henri Emmanuelli, former Socialist President of the National Assembly, Patrick Devedjian,former UMP Minister, Minister of Justice manqué and Right-wing notable, and Bernadette Chirac, the former President’s wife. The departmental assembly is only required to meet at least once every quarter, and its functions are more administrative than legislative – the implementation of social welfare provision, transport infrastructure, school provisions, and the like.
A significantly stronger emphasis has been placed by the socialist government on its contentious regional merger plan which has reduced the number of administrative regions to 14 from 22. In early June 2014, President Hollande presented his redistricting of France’s regions as an effort to cut both costs and ‘needless’ bureaucracy, stating that “the time had come to simplify and clarify so that everyone knows who decides, who finances and from which resources”. Clarity and simplicity do not apply, it seems, to the lower departmental level. Oddly, ongoing territorial reforms mean that the exact capacities of departmental councils have not yet been defined, making life difficult for candidates on the campaign trail trying to explain what they will be doing. But in the face of the economic powerhouse of regional councils, and local political fiefdoms of the mayors and town councils, the department occupies a relatively powerless middle-ground. Indeed, the novelty of the elections is overshadowed by a national government’s commitment to phasing out the departmental council level by 2020, leaving these entities intact only in rural areas lacking a major city or strong communal linkages to form smaller but sufficiently populous administrative entities.
Therefore, despite important changes in parity and a substantial amount of institutional engineering, the 2015 departmentals will clearly fall into the category of ‘second order’ elections where, in the words of Reif and Schmitt (1980), “little is at stake”. In line with the American model of ‘presidential penalty’ in midterms elections, the departmental ballot will give French voters another opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the current record of the ruling socialist party, while simultaneously sending a message of discontent to mainstream parties, both in government and opposition. In this sense, the sole interest of the forthcoming departmentals is that they will provide a snapshot of the current balance of power in French politics –including most evidently the size of the radical vote and the impact of Sarkozy’s return to the UMP–, as well as an indication of party strategies in future national elections. We will return to these aspects in our next blog.