The campaign for France’s regional elections, the first round of which is on Sunday, should be about regional issues: transportation, universities, healthcare, and the decentralisation of the French state. But instead, much of the focus has been on national issues of security and immigration, over which regions have next to no control.
“We are not taking the opportunity of the regional elections to talk about major issues for France, like the role of regions, and what power local authorities should have,” laments political scientist Bruno Cautrès.
France has been trying to decentralise decision making for decades, and a 2015 reform creating larger administrative regions was intended to give them more power.
France’s 18 regions can control taxation, and regional councils, elected every six years, have jurisdiction over the construction and running of high schools, managing universities and regional public transport.
Regional councillors sit on the boards of regional health agencies that oversee public health and hospitals, which have been put to the test during the Covid crisis.
And yet very few of the 2021 regional election campaigns have focused on these issues. Instead, the debate has become nationalised, serving as a kind of referendum for parties ahead of next year’s presidential election.
What's at stake in Sunday's French regional election first round?
Listen to an interview with Bruno Cautrès in the Spotlight on France podcast:
Several candidates running at the top of regional lists are expected to run for president in 2022, including Valérie Pecresse in Ile-de-France and Xavier Bertrand in the Hauts-de-France. The regional elections are a way for them to gain visibility and jump-start their presidential bids.
For President Emmanuel Macron, these are the first regional elections for his Republique en Marche party, which swept national elections in 2017, but has not been successful locally.
The party did badly in local elections last year. "They do not really have grassroots at the local level,” says Cautrès, which explains why the focus of the regional campaign is more on national, rather than local issues.
“Normally, it should have been the role of the French executive to focus on a lot of regional issues and talk about decentralisation. (Instead) the campaign has been mostly about national issues, particularly with a toxic debate that we have in France on immigration, security and law and order.”
These are issues close to the hard-right National Rally, and polls suggest that the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, is likely to end up in the second round of the presidential election, as she did in 2017.
The increasing acceptance of the National Rally as a mainstream party, rather than a far-right, anti-immigration fringe movement, poses a challenge for the centre-right, which is desperate to convince voters of its own right-wing credentials.
“For a long time the right wing in France, like in other European countries, was known to be the party of law and order, so it is crucial for them to show voters that they still own the issue,” says Cautrès.
“This probably explains why the campaign for regional elections is over-dominated by these issues,” he adds, even though regions have no authority on security, as police are under the jurisdiction of the interior ministry and central government in Paris.
The nationalisation of the debate around issues that ultimately have nothing to do with the real powers of the regions is likely to discourage people from voting.
Turnout is expected to be low for an election that many find uninspiring, even though there could be an opportunity to address some fundamental problems.
The Yellow Vest protest movement, which started in November 2018, raised a lot of questions about the role of government in people’s lives and the focus of wealth and power in Paris.
“There was an aspect of popular insurrection in the Yellow Vest crisis,” says Cautrès, and though the weekly protests have died down, many of the issues remain unresolved.
He warns that the lack of focus on regional issues in these regional elections will exacerbate the problem: “France cannot afford a second Yellow Vest crisis this year.”
Find an interview with Bruno Cautres in the Spotlight on France podcast, listen here.