French local elections in democratic limbo

While timely and necessary, the measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 have had an enormous impact not only on our daily lives, but also on our democracies. In this series, we try to asses how democratic practice has been affected and how we can make our future democracies more resilient.

We spoke with Clara Egger and Raul Magni Berton, French political scientists, and Annette Mathieu and Serge Ollivier, direct democracy activists of "À Nous la Démocratie" on the circumstances of the first round of local elections, the deferral of the second round and the implications for democracy. 

A country goes into lockdown, a country head to the polls...

The local elections in France were supposed to take place in two rounds on 14 and 21 March last month, but the arrival of the Coronavirus in France thoroughly jumbled up those plans.

French local elections are held in two rounds spaced one week apart, with only parties that receive more than 10% going on to the second round and the mayoral candidates of parties that receive more than 51% in the first round elected immediately.

As late as Friday before election Sunday, the government made the controversial decision of holding the first round, while at the same time calling for a lockdown, starting the day after. In an atmosphere of utter confusion and worried about their safety and health, a record number of voters decided to sit out these elections, explains Raul Magni Berton, Professor in Political Sciences.

While, the turnout reached a record low at 46%, compared to 63% last elections, the number of Mayors that received the necessary 51% of the votes to be elected in the first round, reached a record high. Around 20,000 Mayors (of 36,000 municipalities) are certain of their office without the second round of voting. During the last local elections the number of Mayors to be elected in first round was only 7000 indicating that voter abstention fell across political lines and played an significant role.


Depressed mayors and illegal election programmes

A highly centralised state, France allows for little leeway for local action. During the previous term, this already led to a record number of Mayors stepping down. In these elections, 106 towns had no candidates for mayor at all, compared to 60 during the last elections. That there is such little room for local policy has also led to the absurd situation that almost all local lists include policies in their programme that are technically illegal, says Magni Berton. Many of these 'illegal' election proposals contain plans for more direct and participatory democracy at the local level, which the French central state does not allow.

One such list is À Nous la Démocracy ("Democracy is ours"), a citizens' movement for direct democracy which ran in 10 towns, ranging from the very smallest (Maillé - 500 inhabitants) to the largest, Paris. As the umbrella structure for direct democracy organisations throughout the country, their main objective is to bring citizens back to the centre of decision-making, with a randomly-drawn citizens' assembly as the new senate and the citizen-initiated referendum being their main demands. They made the 10% hurdle to go directly to the second round in four places: Poitiers, Nancy and the 10th and 18th arrondissement of Paris. They also just fell short of the 10% mark in Paris' 9th arrondissement and Sarcelles, putting them in a good position to merge with another list and move to the second round as an alliance.


Party strategy meetings under a lockdown

Annette Mathieu, who headed up the À Nous la Démocratie list in Nancy, explains how while the polling went on as scheduled, assessors of the different parties were worried about safety standards and the lack of precautions at polling stations in the light of the enfolding health crisis.

The days following the first election Sunday were especially harrowing for these smaller lists, Serge Ollivier of À Nous la Démocratie explains. As these lists often fall in the grey zone between 5% and 10% of the votes, where it is still possible to merge with another list that has reached the 10% threshold. The deadline for such merged lists traditionally falls on Tuesday after the election and while it was clear that the second round of voting would be postponed, no such clarity existed about when parties were supposed to hand in their new lists. In many places this absurdly forced parties to hold meetings, while a lockdown was technically in place.

Enormous uncertainty now surrounds the second round, which has been announced for June, but could also take place in October. At the same time the Constitutional Court has advised to do the first round over, but has stopped short of issuing an official ruling.


A highly divided country gravitates towards citizen participation

In a country that has seen intense social unrest for the better part of the last two years, these elections had the topic of citizen participation high on the agenda. Since the start of the Yellow Vests protests at the end of 2018, the question of democratic reform and citizen-centred governance has gradually come to the forefront, says Clara Egger, Doctor in Political Sciences.

Especially, the Yellow Vests' demand of the RIC, the citizen-initiated referendum has become a talking point all over the country. In the wake of these discussions, a slew of citizens' lists and lists allied to civil society had popped up to run in the municipal elections. They are now especially at risk, as they have neither the funds nor the infrastructure to prolong or renew their campaign for the postponed second round, or potentially to run in a do-over of the first round at a later date.


Watch the full conversation here: