All politics is local. Except of course when it isn’t. The dichotomy present within any local election is usually between the side that has an interest in ensuring that local issues are to the fore, when the other side that wants instead to play on national issues. The positions are not usually uniform across the country; strategy will vary from town to town, even if it chaffes against the national strategy imposed by political barons in Paris. In mainland France, the absence of any large regional parties exacerbates this phenomenon.
I have great sympathy for the argument that local politics should be about local issues. Watch a local council meeting in operation and you will see how often it is about pragmatic and practical decision making, rather than politics. However, I’m not as naive to think that I should dictate to voters why they should vote for one particular list or another, particularly when the list bears the name of a national party. As a reminder, the French local elections are on a list basis, broadly along party lines, but with a great deal of coalition building to put those lists together, particularly in smaller towns.
It is as result of this limited nationalisation of the campaign that the Socialists are likely to do fairly badly in the forthcoming local elections on 23 and 30 March. The nuance highlights that the Socialists are starting from a political high-water mark: they control the largest number of local councils in the country than they have ever had with about two thirds of towns with over 10,000 people. What has gone up must therefore come down. The question will be to what degree.
Socialist dominance in local government over the past 10 years has changed the way the party operates and thinks, for the better. It is rare to find in medium sized and large towns one party governing on its own. Instead Socialists, radicals, independents and communists will join forces in governing coalitions. These compromises are necessarily built on local circumstances (a particular local project, such as the new swimming pool, or rubbish collection) and are inherently pragmatic. This kind of local politics is the stuff that national strategists easily tire of and is largely devoid of philosophy and ideology. In fact it’s just the kind of politics that many ordinary voters say that they want to see at a national level and it is therefore regrettable that its time may be slowly drawing to a close as the more monolithic UMP asserts itself at the local level.
The media have made much of the spectre of the National Front (FN) in these elections. Both the Socialists and, somewhat belatedly, the UMP have been deconstructing the FN’s simplistic and often barmy arguments, highlighting their often distant candidates (the FN’s candidate in Paris does not even live their and will not be able to vote for himself) and paucity of local policies. The Socialists have run poorly attended but worthy national conventions to dissect the FN’s programme. The UMP, which stands to lose more than anybody else in a political pincer movement, trapped by left and extreme right competitors, has been tackling the FN more directly, providing its own alternatives. The FN’s strength though is patchy – for example, it is totally absent from the Paris local election, where the battle for the mayoralty has been raging for the past six months. In my own local area, the easterly suburbs of Paris with a highly diverse population, the FN barely exists as a movement and will field few candidates.
The more menacing figure that casts its shadow across the elections for the Socialists is surely turn-out, or rather lack of it. Local elections have continued the general trend (present in all French elections since the 1960s bar the Presidentials) of declining turnout, which often fails to break through the 50% barrier in many towns. Disappointed Hollande-voters may not be ready to vote for the UMP, and may not have an FN candidate to vent their frustration, so staying home is an easy option. Expect turnout to drop slightly (a re-energised right will make up some of the difference) but the Socialists to suffer more than others.
The Socialist are likely to scrape through March thanks to one particular city. Marseille has an emblematic status, and highlights the battle between left, right and extreme right. The Socialists held a bitter primary to select their candidate for mayor of Marseille in 2013, which lurched into farce when a government minister (the establishment candidate) was eliminated in the first round, and the two finalists engaged in accusations of central party meddling and corruption. The candidate selected, Patrick Mennucci, has proved to be more robust than the central party thought, and more of a threat to the incumbent UMP mayor, Jean-Jacques Gaudin, than the UMP thought. Marseille, somewhat unfairly seen as a crucible of immigration, crime and disorder, is also ripe ground for the FN. They will have a strong showing in the local election, almost certainly getting through to the second round against the UMP and Socialists in many arrondissements. In such a triangulation, the Socialists stand a good chance. If Mennucci does win, media coverage will focus on that, eclipsing what will otherwise be a mediocre performance, albeit buttressed by likely victories in Paris (where the UMP’s campaign to oust the Socialists from the town hall has degenerated into infighting) and the reelection of popular Socialist mayors in Lille and Lyon.
Inevitably though, away from these big wins, many Socialist Councillors will be packing their bags and giving way to the right or the extreme right, particularly in small and medium-sized councils, even where their majorities are preserved. That is in itself no bad thing, particularly on councils where a crushing majority is slimmed down, but it will not change central government policy. Even the Senatorial elections to follow in September are unlikely to be affected much by the results of the local elections (Senators are elected by an electoral college largely made up of local Councillors). The geography of September’s election is not particularly favourable to the UMP, and in any event any pretence of a left wing majority in the Senate evaporated sometime ago due to the Communists’ and the Greens’ opposition to most government policies.
At stake in the local elections therefore is not the direction of the country, the identity of the Prime Minister or his government, or the President’s economic and social strategy. Instead it is something much smaller, but as important: the future of how towns and cities will be run for the next six years. If that’s not worth turning out for, then surely nothing is.