No Man’s Land

6455 villages, towns and cities across France are voting in the second round of the local elections today.  However far fewer people are involved today compared with the first round last week, because in the three quarters of French towns, cities and villages, one list won outright last Sunday, with over 50% of the vote.  And in those municipalities, local politics is not stuck in the political no man’s land between first and second round – the work has begun.
I live in one of these towns where the election was over last Sunday, with the unified left wing list winning 59% of the vote. Our attentions have therefore turned away from elections and to the day-to-day process of governing. I was a candidate on the left wing list, and last Sunday we celebrated a better than expected victory, holding our Town Hall and taking 27/33 council seats. Whilst turnout was down, which was a source of some disappointment, we were thankful that we managed to get out our vote. This morning the new council met to elect the mayor (no surprises there) and the executive committee that will govern for the next six years.  The busy process of governing has therefore begun.

However the rest of the country (and the national and local media) are still tetanised by the second round, which finishes this evening at 8 PM. The results of last Sunday’s first round were widely seen as a disaster for the governing Socialists. Headlines focused on the predictable victory of the Front National in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, and the disappointing score of the Socialist candidate Patrick Menucci in Marseilles. Marseilles was a particular blow to the Socialists because the outgoing Conservative mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin was seen as lacklustre and under pressure from his right from a strong field of Front National candidates. President Hollande had also personally intervened in determining the strategy for Marseilles, a tactic that may have backfired.

All is however not lost. There was a natural tendency of many in the media to jump to conclusions that the first round would automatically predict the results of the second round. This ignores however electoral pacts on the left, particularly given the strong performance of the Greens in many larger cities, for example Grenoble where the Greens came top. The Socialists have also been readier than the Conservatives to withdraw candidates who have qualified to the second round where another left winger stands a better chance.

The government line (and this is with some justification if one looks closely at the electoral map) is to admit that the first round was disappointing, but that the second round is not a done deal. This is particularly true in Paris, where although the Socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, came second overall in number of votes to her conservative challenger, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.  However, the strength of the Greens in Paris and their second round electoral pact with Hidalgo means that Paris is unlikely to turn blue tonight.

If the Socialists could take some comfort from the plurality on the left which open up coalition possibilities not available to the hegemonic Conservatives, the level of turnout is worrying many. French politicians and the media are somewhat obsessed with their otherwise comparably high turnout in local, national and European elections. With turnout sometimes reaching 85 or even 90% in presidential elections, France is a highly politicised and mobilised country. When turnout falls to it as little as 40% in some places (including my own town) in local elections, there is much soul-searching and navelgazing to try and explain why.

A general sense of frustration, resignation and disinterest by much of the population for politics explains why people stayed at home last Sunday.  Local elections, where the impact of the vote is unclear or where the result appears predetermined, are particularly vulnerable to what the French called “abstention”.  The weather in the north of the country (the afternoon was punctuated by wind and rain) didn’t help.  Oddly, the media never talk about the impact of the weather on turnout, as if it is shameful to admit that whether it is bucketting it down outside would influence whether a citizen accomplishes this solemn act.  Today’s weather is better, but the move to summertime last night appears to have had a knock on the lunchtime turnout figures which are slightly down on last Sunday’s. However by international standards turnout, likely to reach 60% today, in an election so soon after two national elections, is still not half bad. Perhaps France is starting to drift towards the international norm of a mobilised electorate that votes often and a disenfranchised third of the population that neither votes, nor sees any particular importance in doing so.

On the campaign trail I frequently met members of that third. What pervaded was a sense that, irrespective of who they voted for, little would change in their own lives. Representative democracy’s lack of direct connection between the decisions that are taken and the votes actually cast inevitably leads to this sentiment. In order to tackle this it would be helpful to see a greater focus on participative democracy, with more direct consultation and referendums at a local level. Such consultations are difficult to organise well, but having made voting easier (it’s easier than ever to give a power of attorney to a friend to vote on your behalf), without improving turnout, changing the way that people vote on issues that almost all agree are important to them (major new building programs, plans for open spaces and parks, schools and crèches, transport projects and the like) is something that France and indeed many European countries have been reticent to try.

The future of local politics is either control by a small mobilised part of the population which is necessarily unrepresentative, or greater participative democracy. Whilst an increase in direct consultation removes power and decision-making from elected officials, that surely should be a necessary sacrifice to give an element of power back to the people. Democracy is decided by the people who turn out. But if the people who don’t usually turn out can be encouraged to do so because they are interested in the issue of the questions put to them, then surely that will lead to better democracy for all.

Until then, we wait this afternoon for the second round’s results. This is a difficult day for the government, the left in general, and the quality of French democracy. Time will tell if the government and those councils are elected across the country will know how to respond to the challenges that today has brought into light.

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