What Can the 2021 Regional Elections in France Teach Us?

The 2021 French regional elections, which took place on June 20th and June 27th, suffered from a record high rate of abstention. Despite this signalling a lack of interest in regional councils and their perceived insignificance, a closer look at the results can provide some insights into the current political landscape and what it might look like as the French presidential elections in April 2022 approach. This topic becomes all the more relevant considering that France will head the Council of the EU in the first half of 2022, under whose presidency the EU is supposed to wrap up the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Although participation in French regional elections is always lower than in presidential elections, it was nevertheless at an all-time low this year. In fact, the 2021 regional elections saw the lowest voter turnout since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, with more than 2 in every three voters opting not to vote in the first and second rounds of voting – a 66.7% and 65.7% abstention rate respectively. These trends stem from the fact that few people understand the role of regional councils, and that regardless they are taken to have limited power. An increasing political disaffection may also have fed into this. This calls the decentralisation policy in France, instituted to revitalise local democracy, into question, not least because it showcases that voting in presidential elections is still seen as the main (and only) way of influencing how the country is run.

Looking now exclusively at the implications of the 2021 record high abstention rate, extrapolating about the outcome of the presidential elections in 2022 should be done with caution. Indeed, although Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are definitively weakened from the regionals, the political scene of 2022 is still very much uncertain given that, as previous trends indicate, a significant part of the people who did not vote in the regionals will likely turn out for the presidential elections. This paired with growing political disaffiliation, which represents a “warning for democracy“, may provide opportunities for parties to capture new voters in the upcoming presidential elections, particularly for Macron and populist parties. After all, Macron, with his then newly formed centrist party La République en Marche (LREM), and Le Pen, with her populist far-right party Rassemblement National (RN), already largely capitalised on the fatigue with traditional parties and politics in the 2017 presidential elections.

What also made these elections stand out is the fact they marked “the revenge of the parties of the old world”. Namely, the mainstream centre-right, Les Républicains (LR), and their allies, retained their seven regional councils out of the twelve mainland French regional councils. The Parti Socialiste (PS) also fared well by retaining their 5 regions. Therefore, one might wonder if the redrawing of France’s political map, of which the 2017 presidential election is a prime example with no mainstream parties making it to the second-round run-off, has been halted. Furthermore, these results represent an opportunity for traditional parties in the upcoming presidential elections, given the strong rooted loyalty to their candidates at the regional level. For example, Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez were comfortably re-elected, marking them out as potential centre-right presidential candidates. It remains to be seen whether Les Républicains unanimously allies around one candidate. If it manages to do so, the chances of the current President, Macron, being re-elected are likely to decrease to some degree.

Another noteworthy point is that the parties that made it to the second round run off of the 2017 Presidential elections, RN and LREM, did not maintain their momentum. In 2017, they had signalled a break with the left-right policy space that had long characterised France given that for the first time under the Fifth Republic, neither the PS on the left nor the LR (or its predecessors) on the right made it to the run-off.

Let us first turn to Le Pen and her far-right party RNPre-vote polls showed her party leading in six regions; she didn’t win a single one. Perhaps this is because candidates like Thierry Mariani, who were recruited from the mainstream right, failed to broaden the party’s appeal as intended. This initiative may even have alienated some of the RN‘s electoral base, who are dissatisfied with her recently tempered stance, explaining why the party’s usual reliable voters did not vote. In light of the regional elections, Le Pen may face renewed doubts within her party as well as a challenge from a far-right rival. This is because her electability in the 2022 presidential elections, which was already low following her loss to Macron in 2017, was further harmed in what was the last chance before the presidential elections to boost it.

Macron’s party, LREM, fared poorly as well, failing to win a single region, and receiving only 7% of the vote – a dismal result for a ruling party. In fact, LREM was unable to establish a local or regional presence. This demonstrates that running a national electoral campaign is a long way from forming a viable political party which can effectively operate on all levels. Moreover, the outcome of the regional elections casts further doubts on LREM’s future without Macron. It showcases that the party is not active at all levels in France in the eyes of the citizens, and that Macron, not the party, is important to them. This means that the party risks losing political appeal next year if Macron loses or after he has served the maximum two presidential terms allowed if he wins.

At the same time, we should not be too hasty in drawing conclusion for the upcoming presidential elections, given that a poor LREM showing on a regional level will not necessarily be problematic in a personality-based national election. Regarding the latter point, Macron and Le Pen continue to lead in polls conducted after the regional elections on vote intentions in the first round of the 2022 presidential elections, regardless of the right candidate being tested against them in the polls.  In a similar vein, Macron currently has almost 50% of favourable opinions.

In sum, while the record high rate of abstention in regional elections makes forecasting the outcome of the presidential elections difficult, they appear to point to a more dynamic competition than the long-forecasted runoff between Macron and Le Pen, given that it has drawn attention to opportunities for traditional parties and challenges for Macron and Le Pen.

The author is currently an intern at the CEP.

Photo: A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Angers, western France, June 20, 2021. © Loïc Venance, AFP