The French local elections – and a quiet revolution?

Chris Game

This Sunday, March 23, the French will be voting in their local/municipal elections, an occasion about as different from our forthcoming local elections on May 22 as it’s possible to be. There’ll be two rounds of voting – run-off ballots next Sunday, if required – party lists with alternating male and female candidates, proportional representation, winners’ bonuses, required voter identity proof, transparent ballot boxes, no postal voting, a nearly 70% turnout, and not one directly elected maire (mayor). Above all, though, it will actually feel local.

France has 36,682 communes with an average population of 1,780, a median population of around 400, and all will be elected, en bloc, for six-year terms. That’s it. Big numbers, but not, I’d suggest, greater complexity. England, the only part of Great Britain with local elections this year, has just 325 lower-tier and unitary councils, with an average population of 163,000 – yet it takes two semi-colons just to summarise in a single sentence who’s entitled to do what on May 22.

Depending on where we live, some of us will be electing, in addition to members of the European Parliament, all councillors in 32 London boroughs, and in two unitaries and two non-metropolitan districts where there have been boundary reviews and resulting changes in council size; plus one-third of the councillors in 36 metropolitan boroughs, in 17 (of 56) unitaries, in 68 (of 201) non-metropolitan districts, and half of those in a further 7 non-metropolitan districts; plus 5 elected mayors. And we wonder why bewildered residents sometimes ring somewhere called the Institute of Local Government Studies wanting to know if they’ve got a local vote this year.

Actually, I lied a little about the straightforwardness of what I should have called the French systems – plural. With so many very small communes, the French split their municipalities into two electoral groups, the dividing line now being a population of 1,000, and roughly 20% of the total, rather than the previous 3,500.  Smaller communes will elect their 9- to 15-member councils by a single-district, multi-member plurality (first-past-the-post) system, with voters able to choose either a whole party list or candidates from more than one list. In larger communes the voter’s choice is restricted to complete party lists and seats are allocated through a proportional system, but one distorted by a 50% ‘winner’s bonus’. To ensure a working majority, the list with most votes is awarded half of the seats, with the remainder distributed proportionally among all of the lists including the winning list. In both systems the election can take up to two rounds.

The parallel existence of the two different systems offers a ready-made research design, but electoral reformers arguing that proportional systems stimulate turnout have received at best only modest support from such studies. Local turnout in both systems is consistently between 65 and 70%, confirming the phenomenon regularly found in cross-national surveys: that, to the French more than most – and certainly more than us – local politics really does matter.

In fact, the larger/smaller commune division has had a more decisive impact on attempts to redress women’s under-representation in French politics through the kinds of gender quotas that, as Catherine Durose and colleagues noted recently, are still being resisted by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties here in Britain.

In 2000, to quite widespread surprise, France became the first country to introduce an electoral gender parity law. Parties were required to present an equal number of female and male candidates on their lists for all elections conducted by systems of proportional representation – i.e. for the European Parliament, most national Senate seats, regions and larger municipalities, but not, significantly, the National Assembly.

Though the law referred to female candidates, its immediate impact on those actually elected was considerable. In 2001 women councillors in municipalities with more than 3,500 residents rose from 26% to 48%, and the number of women Senators in parity seats quadrupled.  Since then, electoral law has been tinkered with, some loopholes exploited by the parties have been closed, and, by the 2012 elections, the numbers of women National Assembly members had gradually risen to 27% (5% ahead of the UK), albeit thanks largely to that year’s sweeping Socialist victory. Furthermore, unlike his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, President François Hollande honoured his pledge to have an equal number of women and men in both the cabinet and government.

His pledge, however, had a kick in the tail: “… which is not to say that they will have the same responsibilities” – and Hollande honoured that part too. All top ministries apart from Justice went to men, and Martine Aubry, ministerial author of the 35-hour working week law (‘la loi Aubry’) and his defeated challenger for the Socialist Party nomination, was passed over as Prime Minister for a personal friend.

If, as suggested, local politics matters more in France than in many European countries, then the most important political figure in most French citizens’ lives is the executive maire/mayor of their commune. Communes may be small, but those who attempt to equate them to our parish and town councils need to remember that they are responsible, individually or jointly, for elementary school buildings and equipment, youth services, recreation and sports facilities, tourism, local urban policy and planning, water sanitation and distribution, waste management, roads and public transport, public and social housing, police, traffic and parking.

One might expect, and many suppose, the French mayoralty to be a directly elected office – but it’s not. Mayors are formally elected by their fellow councillors, although, with the various parties’ candidates for mayor heading their respective candidate lists and having already selected their proposed adjoints (equivalent to committee chairs), many municipal elections give every appearance of being what in reality they are: virtual direct mayoral elections. However, with indirect elections not covered by the parity law, there are, in contrast to the pattern of councillor representation, proportionally more women mayors of smaller communes, proportionally fewer of larger ones, and just one in the 12 largest cities – Martine Aubry in Lille.

That, however, is about to change dramatically – and I’ve no journalistic excuse for taking so long to get to what will undoubtedly be the topic of Monday morning’s headlines. But, so hyper-personalised and sickeningly sexist has the media coverage of the Paris mayoral contest become that I promised myself I’d write at least 800 words exceedingly unsensational stuff about these local elections before I mentioned it – which, if you’ve read this far, you’ll realise I’ve easily managed. And, bad news, the unsensational stuff will continue for at least another paragraph.

Like all French mayors, the mayor of Paris is also indirectly elected – though in this case by 163 of the councillors elected to the councils in the 20 arrondissements (districts) into which Paris is divided. The real battle, therefore, faced by the Conservative challenger – though you’d never guess it – is to win not a city-wide personal popularity contest ‘to become the new face of Paris’, but enough seats in the arrondissements in which the Socialist Party of the President and the current city mayor holds today a majority of the mayoralties.

The strong probability is that that battle will be decided in a run-off ballot next Sunday between the Socialist Party’s Anne Hidalgo, Spanish-born two-term deputy to the retiring mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, widely (and thankfully) known as NKM, of the Conservative opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UPM), who was a minister in the Sarkozy government, spokesperson during his re-election campaign, and is mayor of the southern Parisian suburb of Longjumeau. Given the unpopularity of President Hollande and his government, the UPM could well regain most or even all of the party’s 2008 municipal losses, but still fall short of the biggest prize of all.

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There are several other candidates, representing parties from the Left Front and the Ecologist/Green Party across to the Centrist Alliance and the National Front, but they go almost entirely unmentioned. There is some serious coverage of the principal candidates’ policies, but the enduring images (literally) of this campaign seem more likely to be those of ‘the Heiress vs the Harpist’.

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Hidalgo, of course, is the Heiress – ‘la dauphine’ to and protégée of Delanoë, and whose TV latex puppet on France’s version of Spitting Image is usually depicted trailing behind or agreeing with his.  The ‘aristocratic, Botticelli-haired’ NKM had the misjudgement to pose for a Paris Match photo spread, pregnant, nymph-like and with an abandoned harp in the middle of a forest, apparently proclaiming that ‘My first baby is politics’.

Despite such coverage, and whatever the outcome, an effectively all-female contest for such a major office – and one traditionally seen as a springboard to the Presidency – does constitute a sizable step in the hitherto fairly quiet revolution in the role of women in French politics, and one that should contribute to greater female representation in both national and government. An even bigger step, though, as observed by former Justice Minister and early mayoral candidate, Rachida Dati, will be when journalists stop talking altogether about candidates’ gender, and concentrate on their competence and experience.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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