The Morning After
The 2021 regionals are history. What to make of the results? First, the vast majority of voters continued to abstain. Second, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National suffered a severe setback. The RN list in PACA, led by Thierry Mariani, did not merely lose; it was crushed, tallying 14 points less than the Republican-LREM coalition led by Renaud Muselier. In Hauts-de-France, moreover, Sébastien Chenu lost by 24 points. In short, a terrible day for the Le Penist forces. And if, as Marine Le Pen contends, a large pool of RN voters remains untapped, her entreaties after Round 1 that they should show themselves to send a message to the powers-that-be fell on deaf ears. Clearly she will have to rethink her strategy for the presidential elections.
As pleasant as it is to see the far right discomfited, it’s hard to know what to make of these results. In nearly all regions, incumbents, including Socialist incumbents, fared extremely well. This is hard to square with the idea that France is a nation of perpetual malcontents smoldering with resentment at the way the country is being managed. True, the presidential “party” (the scare quotes are meant to suggest that calling it a party is an undeserved compliment) barely registered at the polls, and Macron’s failure to give his “vision” local roots may yet prove to have been a mistake, but the regionals were never going to deliver a definitive verdict on a president who has always seen himself as hors sol.
Like the RN, the Greens failed to capture any region, but they did increase their representation. I don’t think Jadot’s time has come, and I don’t see any real prospect of a credible coalition on the left. Any challenge to Macron will likely come from the center right, but how the various personal rivalries are going to work themselves out is far from clear. The (center-)right is in an even worse pickle than in 2017, when there were too many credible contenders, and since they no longer all claim to belong to a single party, it’s hard to imagine a primary. But unless they winnow the field before Round 1 of the presidential, they’ll knock one another out. Bertrand, Pécresse, Wauquiez, Philippe, Baroin–and, who knows? Darmanin, Le Maire, Larcher: all sense the opportunity, but how to capitalize on it remains a puzzle.
As expected, MLP fared badly, contrary to what the polls were suggesting. The major difference between political polling and actual polls, as far as the national front is concerned is simply this, which pollsters avoid religiously talking about (it would risk hurting the baseline): electors 18 to 25 as well as electors from disadvantaged backgrounds which are a major plank of MLP support in political polls simply do not turn out to vote (abstention 87% for 18-20 and just a bit less for the 20-24). This may be a little bit hard to comprehend for American observers where get-out-the-vote operations are Democratic Party operations, but in France, it’s the contrary, the kids tend to be extremist and racist, certainly more than the older retiring generation which is called the 1968 generation for a reason. This huge bias in political polling in favor of the far right will likely continue until MLP’s likely defeat in the coming presidential election (note that I do not predict who will win, just who will loose…). Once she has lost, her niece will organise a friendly takeover of the family business which does rake in substantial moneys.
One other important point which is getting lost in the hoopla around which hopeful conservative will get to run in the presidential election is simply the fact that the socialist party, thought moribund only a few weeks ago, fared extremely well, in fact better than reported. It managed to keep all the regions it was running, had excellent scores compared to the results of the 2015 regional elections. This in itself is quite telling because these 2015 elections took place during the worst terrorist emergency France had known for many decades and such events normally produce an electorate which rallies around the executive, which was socialist at the time. Further to keeping all its regions in continental France, the socialist party, allied with other left parties, took three overseas “départements” from the conservatives (La Réunion, Martinique and Guyane).
The potential allies of the socialist party, the greens, did not do half as well as they had done a year ago in municipal elections also marked by large abstention. It may be that some idiosyncrasies displayed by newly elected green mayors were not especially helpful, shall we say.
Thus the balance of power within the left camp is likely shifting away from both the LFI and the Greens back towards the socialist party. Of course one must remain prudent, blah blah, because abstention was high, but as a somewhat brutal leader on the left said in the 1970s, “l’union est un combat” (unity is a fight in itself).
As you underscore Art, all incumbents (except overseas) did keep their seats, whatever their party, and with wide margins. Just meaning that the French, as a whole, did not feel the need to unseat incumbents. Would they have wished to express dissatisfaction against the (national) ruling power, they just had to vote for incumbents too, as none of them was from En Marche. But the only learning I would keep from this vote (and the previous “campaign” weeks) is “nobody (but the loyal friends of incumbents) paid even the smallest interest to these local elections” (either for Conseils départementaux or for Conseils régionaux).
I was surprised once again: four months ago, I insisted for the elections to take place at the planned dates, because “if not, the French would resent frustration for being forbidden to express their discontent”. Awfully wrong guess.
A very small second learning nevertheless, a boutique one: all leftist parties in Ile-de-France very easily agreed to merge behind the Green banner (even if this last-week agreement did not rally voters). It looks like the leftist parties would so easily drop any pretentions to lead a coalition, and (rightly) admit the Greens are the only force near us with some impetus and some forward-thinking ideas… but they can actually drop these pretentions only if a Green candidate shows some legitimacy to lead, to rule the country. None of them showed that so far.
And a third one: the great support obtained by the (anti-Greens) rurality movement, allied with Jean Lassalle’s Résistons!, in the most rural parts of “Nouvelle-Aquitaine”. At least in villages and in the mountains, a lot of people do think they are unduly neglected by (regional or national) centers of power. But a lot of villages do not build a national majority.
*”the only force near us” -> “the only force near them”, actually!