Some local trouble for the Front national – the 2014 French municipal elections


Whilst the May 2014 European elections are looking auspicious for the French far right, the municipals next March could turn out less favourably. Should local issues dominate the municipal campaign, as expected, most Socialist mayors are well placed to present voters with decent records as incumbents. This may ultimately protect them from the anticipated wave of political discontent with Hollande’s presidency. Similarly, despite being in political disarray since the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) continues to dominate right-wing locales, owing to their networks of well-established notables. The Front national (FN) enjoys no such positive inertia. In elections where embedded local networks are vital to success, even a party now well into its fourth decade still lacks any semblance of regional coverage in this regard. Whilst public opinion polls seem to suggest that the current Socialist crisis should give the FN the opportunity for unprecedented electoral success in the next few months, what are the party’s realistic chances in March, given these structural weaknesses?

The FN is hoping to field candidates in about 500 municipalities. This would represent a significant improvement on the 2008 election, where the party ran lists in just 78 cities with more than 3,500 inhabitants, polling an average 5.5 per cent of the vote where present, and winning a mere 59 seats out of a possible 90,000. Nevertheless, to date only 120 full lists have been announced, reflecting the continued scarcity of FN grassroots. The gender parity law clearly adds to the pressure and, as in the 2011 cantonals, the FN has to consider new younger candidates with little political experience and looser links with the party. The national leadership is increasingly concerned that these outsiders may not fit the ‘respectable’ profile they are trying to build.

Precisely how many municipalities are in danger of falling to the FN in March is still unclear, but a simple extrapolation from the results of the 2012 legislative elections gives an indication of the party’s local strength. The electoral system strongly benefits the winning party, giving it a large majority bonus of 50% of the council seats, thereby producing high levels of disproportionality. In 2012, the FN candidates topped the second-round ballot in 220 municipalities within the boundaries of their legislative constituencies. The regional breakdown shows spatial polarization of the FN with two distinct clusters of support: more than half (56 per cent) of those cities are found in the North East while another third (34 per cent) are located in the Mediterranean South (see Figure 1).

Figure 1  Municipal strengths of the FN: size of municipality and regional polarization

crop 1


crop 2



Two-thirds of these are small villages with less than 1,000 inhabitants where the FN has no incentive to invest time or financial resources. Of the remaining 74 towns, the best chances for the FN to make headlines are to be found in three of its traditional strongholds: Istres (Bouches-du-Rhône), Carpentras (Vaucluse) and Hénin-Beaumont (Pas-de-Calais). These are relatively large municipalities with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Electoral prospects are equally bright in the slightly smaller cities of Sorgues (Vaucluse), Saint-Gilles (Gard) and Tarascon (Bouches-du-Rhône) which all have just under 20,000 inhabitants. Inevitably the party’s rising stars will be found there: Marine Le Pen will join Steeve Briois in Hénin-Beaumont. Her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen will be on the list presented by a former UMP member in Sorgues. Gilbert Collard can already contemplate a possible easy victory in Saint-Gilles.

Beside this handful of possible ‘symbolic’ wins in larger towns, most of the remaining cases are smaller towns reflecting the territorial distribution of the FN vote in peri-urban zones. In 1995/97, the FN had fielded 490 lists and secured three municipalities with more than 30,000 inhabitants (Orange, Marignane and Vitrolles) and a much larger regional city (Toulon). This year, the FN’s municipal spread might appear to be more diffuse geographically, but it includes a large number of small satellite towns such as Noyelles (Pas-de-Calais), Le Luc, Cogolin and Vidauban (Var), Bédarrides (Vaucluse) and Drap (Alpes-Maritimes). The small far right Ligue du Sud might also exploit its local strengths in the Northern part of Vaucluse to seize a few small towns in the outskirts of Orange where the incumbent mayor and FN dissident, Jacques Bompard, is very likely to win his fourth mandate since 1995.

In the light of its 2012 electoral performance, the FN’s objective to win 10-15 municipalities in 2014 seems an achievable goal. Success at the upper bound of this range, or beyond, would cement the party’s status as favourite to win the European elections in May, as well as demonstrating a game-changing municipal presence. Any performance below 10 would necessarily cast doubt on the true potential of a high-profile party lacking the wherewithal to succeed at the grassroots level. The party will almost as certainly exert its usual nuisance power against the UMP, and once again increase the pressure on the conservative right to consider tactical alliances locally. The FN’s municipal election charter mixes tax cuts, immigration and security issues, staking out an ideological territory very similar to that of the UMP, and very unambiguously opening the door to political cooperation.

This continued testing of the cordon sanitaire between moderate and far right parallels new divisions beginning to emerge inside the party, not least through the increasingly prominent role taken by Florian Philippot and his much contested attempt to repackage the FN as a neo-Gaullist movement. Jean-Marie Le Pen himself seems determined to act as a reactionary force in the party, deliberately obstructing the ‘de-demonization’ strategy of his daughter. The old model of autocratic and highly personalized leadership continues to dominate the FN, as revealed by the building of the ‘Marine’ political franchise since 2011. Strong challengers emerging from local elections inevitably raises the spectre of Mégret and Bompard splitting the party after mayoral victories in the 1990s.

There has also been a shift in polling. Not for the first time, as an election draws near, Marine Le Pen and the FN’s support has begun to founder. Just as 2011 polls predicting a possible run-off place in the Presidentials dropped away in 2012, so the high-tide of public opinion in 2013 has started to falter, with drops of 4-5% in this month’s polls from TNS-SOFRES, OpinionWay and Ipsos. Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s strategy of modernization seems to have run out of steam. Over two-thirds still regard the FN as a ‘far right’ party, while another 59 per cent consider it to be ‘dangerous for democracy’ (see Figure 2). It fares little better in its perceived capacity to govern big cities.

Figure 2  Public perceptions of the FN


Source: IPSOS, Poll on the French and the Front National (16 November 2013)

Efforts to rebrand the old far right have been hampered by political controversies. Last November, visible racism resurfaced in the party after a local FN candidate compared the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey on national television. Many new FN recruits left the party, having encountered anti-Semitism and homophobia amongst its grassroots. Earlier in September, Marine Le Pen had created a row by criticizing the appearance of the French hostages freed in Niger, suggesting that they had converted to Islam during captivity. More recently, the FN leader has shown little eagerness to condemn anti-Semitism, racial hatred and Holocaust denial by the controversial stand-up comedian Dieudonné, whose daughter has Jean-Marie Le Pen as her godfather. Such continuity may sustain fears that, just as Orange, Vitrolles and Marignane became notorious for electing far right mayors, so other towns would be similarly stigmatised in 2014.

Much will depend on the focus of the municipal campaign. The mainstream parties have underlined their wish for the municipal elections to revolve around local issues, as is to their benefit. Polls confirm that voters are split almost 50/50 on local or national issues determining their vote (CSA ‘Le match des municipales’, national figures, 10-12 September 2013). Only around a quarter intend voting as a gesture against the Socialist government. The FN can take some solace from the high-profile Hénin-Beaumont municipality, in which Marine Le Pen will stand, where one section of the electorate stands out with 45 per cent intending to sanction the President and his government – blue-collar workers (CSA ‘Le match des municipales’, Hénin-Beaumont, 13-14 January 2014). At least the ouvriers who form the backbone of FN support are largely construing the election in terms favourable to the FN. Yet even here, polls still give an eventual eight-point victory to the Socialist-EELV list headed by Eugène Binaisse.

Parallels with the legislatives, then, may be instructive. As the leader of the party fell to the Socialists in the Pas-de-Calais, the Southern candidates won through to the National Assembly. The newer battlegrounds of the FN in the North may still not reap the rewards of the historical Midi heartland of far right support.


Jocelyn Evans (@JocelynAJEvans) is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds.

Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in political science based at the University of Nice. They are the authors of ‘The 2012 French Presidential Elections. The Inevitable Alternation’ (Palgrave, 2013) and blog about French elections at



The green light for proxy war in Syria may come back to haunt the EU

153014305-420x210The Anglo-French overhaul of the EU arms embargo on Syria may well turn out to be a turning point in this increasingly bloody conflict. But this should not be taken as a good sign.  The move was justified by the Foreign Secretary William Hague as necessary to encourage a ‘diplomatic solution’ to the war by emboldening ‘moderate’ elements of the disparate anti-Assad opposition. Yet the result of the protracted negotiations in Brussels earlier this week has the potential to turn a domestic rebellion into an externally-funded proxy war that could have a significant impact upon the longevity of violence and the wider politics of the region.

The intensification of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissident groups, including massacres of civilians in the towns of Homs and Houla prompted intense diplomatic debate about the necessity and viability of launching a direct military intervention, potentially under the auspices of the United Nations, to put a stop to the atrocities. Since hostilities broke out the warring factions and their allies have spoken repeatedly about a desire to turn the conflict in Syria into a war by proxy. As far back as February 2012 an Arab League-sponsored ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunisia saw the anti-Assad Syrian National Council (SNC) lobby the delegates of the 70 nations present to allow them to import weapons in order for them to take their fight to the Syrian army and pro-government militias.

Indirect intervention

Even before the reversal of the EU weapons sanctions, both the friends and enemies of Assad’s regime have resorted to indirect intervention in Syria as stalemate at the UN Security Council stalled the possibility of direct intervention. Britain and the United States have already provided millions of dollars-worth of what was labelled ‘non-lethal equipment’ (such as communications devices) over the past year. Allies of President Assad, namely Russia, have also been developing proxy methods by which to bolster their ally. Despite Kremlin denials, shipments of Russian-made weaponry have been intercepted on its way to Syria. Most worryingly of all is the influx of Hezbollah fighters into the country. This has provided Assad’s army with a boost of surrogate manpower and underlines the complex regional picture into which the EU is now wading.

The dangers of Syria’s metamorphosis into a protracted proxy war are contained within a threefold set of consequences for those involved. First is the danger of long-term dependence. Even if the Assad regime falls, any new rulers of Syria may indeed owe their status to decisive amounts of military and financial aid from Western states. This reliance may not necessarily end once a potential victory has been secured. On-going financial support will inevitably be needed to rebuild vital Syrian infrastructure. The EU will certainly have to assess how much involvement it would be willing to have in Syria if and when Assad goes. With a large post-civil war nation-building effort on its hands, any post-Assad government is going to receive offers of help that could spill over into outright dependence if indirect influence over politics in Damascus continues once the war is over.

The second major consequence of the EU’s green light for weapon shipments to the rebels is the elongation or intensification of the violence. There is often an assumption on behalf of interventionist powers that the adoption of a proxy war strategy is the quickest way to bring a war to a swift end by indirectly allowing one side to gain an advantage in terms of manpower, training or weaponry. But the understanding that proxy interventions actually prematurely end an existing conflict belies evidence that on the whole they actually prolong such conflicts largely because a weak warring faction is boosted to the point of creating stalemate. A flood of weapons or surrogate forces into an existing warzone gives one or other of the parties involved further motivation and support to fight on, not collapse or seek negotiation. With Britain and France now boldly declaring their desire to ship arms to the insurgents, Syria seems destined to endure a bloody extension of its civil war.

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend”

Finally, it is worth considering how proxy interventions create the conditions for conflict over-spill and ‘blowback’. To a large degree the recent EU decision is based on the crude political assumption that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ Yet this policy runs the severe risk of creating unintended, counter-productive consequences once the war is over. Such ‘blowback’ can be high profile or subtle, immediate or delayed in its manifestation. The nature of likely ‘blowback’ in the Syrian case can only be speculated upon but the potential for its occurrence seems to have played little or no part in the policy calculations of William Hague or his French counter-part Laurent Fabius.

The absence of an endgame to the proxy war in Syria and the potent dangers of interfering in Middle Eastern politics should encourage EU foreign ministers to reflect more deeply on the long-term implications of initiating short-term proxy wars and caution against the expedient use of indirectly intervening in the wars of others. The decision from Brussels to try and influence the war in Damascus could come back to haunt the corridors of European power.

Dr Andrew Mumford‘s book Proxy Warfare was recently published by Polity. 

Sandcastles and dustclouds in Mali in the aftermath of France’s intervention

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

In his novel Desert the noble prize winning French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio describes the two waves of destruction to which nomad cultures in the Sahel have been subjected in the past 100 years: French colonialism on the one hand, and modern labour migration to metropole and the alienation that goes with it, on the other. Whereas French immigration policies since the 1980s have driven the latter to its climax, the arrival of French troops in Timbuktu has signed off another chapter of the first. In fact, French troops had taken Timbuktu already in 1894. In Le Clézio’s novel, the link between the two narratives is the family and love story that connects the main characters. However, from a political history point of view the connection is the way the West, in this case the French state, has appropriated, used, abused and pushed around the political entities in the Sahel and its people, whether by subjugating them to colonial rule or by exploiting them as cheap, immigrant labour.

The current intervention of France in Mali has all the signs of perpetuating this pattern. What is at stake in the North of Mali? As before the groups that the French were (supposedly) battling were constituted of people whose primary objective was to extract themselves from the state and its characteristics, whether imposed nationality and “national culture” or taxation and rules. As before their way of living and making a living, does not fit the state’s – whether the Malian or the French – aims. Remember that it is the state’s customs booth that transforms long-distance trading into trafficking and smuggling. Yet, contrary to Le Clézio’s novel and the impression one could gain from past events, most often these groups seek to evade the state and its forces rather than to fight them directly. Using their intimate knowledge of the extremely difficult terrain as well as their capacities to survive in this hostile environment, these state-evading groups have commonly retreated into the desert, away from the grip of the state.

When France started marching on Timbuktu last week much of this hide-and-seek game seemed to be repeated. The French met no resistance when they “took” one city after the other… the “terrorists” had evaporated. Finding them is an almost impossible task if the sheer vastness of the territory is considered, but searching for them is a perfect excuse for the US to send in their drones for surveillance of the vast Sahel desert. Yet, what exactly they are seeking, who these people are and what kind of threat they represent – other than not accepting the state (which for a state, of course, is bad enough) – nobody yet knows.

If the French intervention has confirmed the Malian government’s belief that only force can hold the country together and keep rebellious groups down, it has not solved any political problems at all. Although Mali has announced that it would take up negotiations with those groups who have abstained from violence, there is a large array of indicators that such initiatives are bound to fail. In fact, during all this marching and winning battles, no one, neither the Malian government nor the Western decision-makers, has proven that they actually know who these groups are, their motivations and what kind of modus vivendi could be found. France, by the way, happily makes known that they actually never cared, they just intervened to show who the strong man is (confirming Jean-Louis Arcand’s argument that the whole operation is a marketing campaign to rid President Hollande of his marshmallow image) and now that this is done they’ll go home, as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius declared“Maintenant, c’est aux pays africains de prendre le relais. Nous avons décidé de mettre les moyens en hommes et en matériel pour réussir cette mission et frapper fort. Mais le dispositif français n’a pas vocation à être maintenu. Nous partirons rapidement”. (Now it’s up to the African countries to take action. We have decided to provide men and equipment to make this operation a success and to show strong muscles. But the French mission is not meant to stay. We will leave quickly.)

Sahel desert

Sahel desert region by Magharebia

Yet, there are some things happening which clearly should not be part of any “liberation” or intervention to save civilians and which legitimately raise doubts over the Malian government’s willingness and capacity to successfully negotiate a political solution. In Gao and in Timbuktu, Arabs and Touaregs – or people who were said to be Arab or Touareg – were violently attacked, their shops plundered and cases of lynching were reported. Furthermore, past experiences with African “peacekeeping” troops leaves little hope that they can decisively advance a protracted conflict towards resolution. Not only have African troops (albeit others, too) been involved in many cases of abuse, extortion and violence, they also represent a bunch of autocratic governments that barely agree among themselves and who certainly have not shown any particular sensitivity or capacity to deal with non-state and secessionist groups and claims. As Jeffrey Herbst pointed out a long time ago there is nothing more stable and immobile in Africa than the state borders set by the colonial powers, and this is so at the wish and travail of the African, metropolitan and elite governments themselves. The metaphor does not quite fit the climate, but sending in African peacekeepers sounds very much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The paroxysm is reached when the Malian government’s sole plan for pacification is to propose elections. Not only do we know from sufficient scholarly research (let’s just mention Snyder/Mansfield’s study) that elections tend to exacerbate tensions and may actually lead to the escalation of violence, but this proposition also comes from a putschist government! It’s now one year since the “interim” President Diokounda Traoré promised elections, there is little reason to believe that they will live up to this promise now. Last November he showed his discontent with the Prime Minister by having him arrested by the army and, after a short stint in an army camp outside town, had him declare his “resignation”. Clearly this is not a sign that this President is committed to peaceful deliberation and dialogue, and predisposed to give up power when elections or the constitution require him to do so. What will happen is that with an extended network of UN agencies, African Union institutions and NGOs, the government will be able to stretch its bureaucracy into those regions that are far removed from the political centre, hence, extending a little bit farther its claim to statehood.

World literature is usually recognized as such because the stories told and the ways they are told go beyond the particular national or cultural identity of the story teller. They speak to the whole world as they sublimate the specific themes into more general, timeless and ahistorical narratives, which can be recognized by more than just the culturally initiated. The great dust cloud stirred up in Mali has only reignited a circular movement where colonial power – oops, sorry, former colonial powers – work together with local sedentary chiefs to establish and uphold a mirage of stateness, and, as a result, criminalising, marginalising and radicalizing those groups whose mode of life, culture and production evade the categories of the state. The violent and radical reaction of these groups serves as an excuse for expanding statist security and surveillance, hence pushing these groups further into the desert, hence marginalising them even more, hence… the wheel keeps on turning…

Catherine Goetze is the Head of the International Studies Division at the University of Nottingham China Campus. This post originally appeared on her person blog.

France in Mali… le bordel, quoi!

Like every socialist French government of the post-Cold War era, President François Hollande had pledged to set an end to French interference in African affairs, to end “la Françafrique”. As has happened with every socialist French government, it took merely a couple of months to set an end not to Françafrique but to pledges of ending French fumbling around in their African “précarré”. But even if this intervention is consistent with France’s general interference in this region, the question ‘which concrete motives have pushed the president to send in the troops?’ now comes up (in this interview the former Director of the Collège Interarmées de Défense Vincent Desportes speaks of there being 3000 men in the region soon).  In the French media, there is a lot of speculation but little confirmed information.

The president’s declarations are not very elucidating or helpful either. He speaks of helping a befriended country (“pays ami”) or forestalling an Islamist threat on Europe, both of which are not only contradictory motives to invoke (wouldn’t there be the risk that French Islamists get upset over their government right now?) but also not very convincing. The armed conflict in Northern Mali has been dragging on almost a year, the Malian government is barely legitimate as it has come to power by a coup d’état, and what kind of Islamists actually are involved in the conflict, where they come from, how many they are and what their goals are is, for the time being, still cloaked in dust and vagueness. As for the other motive invoked, namely “saving French citizens” one wonders if a simply evacuation operation would not be more appropriate, cheaper and less, how to say, raising dust?

Several analysts speculate that the motives of securing and maintaining access to valuable natural resources in the Northern Mali, Mauritania, and Niger triangle are the most important. Indeed, a large part of the uranium of French nuclear power plants comes from this region and French companies are heavily involved in the extraction of gas, oil and minerals. A propensity for supporting conservative but secular authoritarian regimes like Boutelfika’s Algeria sits well with such a strategy of using the French military to secure access to mineral resources. As the past has shown, these governments rely heavily on the export rent and are, consequently, “manéable à merci”.

Like the US, France always had much better relationships with authoritarian dictators in Africa than with popular or even democratic regimes, and with Algeria this is certainly the case since the Algerian people were unfortunate enough to vote for the FIS (Front Islamique de Salut) in their first and subsequently stolen elections in 1991. Indeed, France’s schmoozing with Algeria has since always been disquieting given the latter’s way of fighting its own “war on terror”. For Algerians, the regime’s friendliness with the French government must have been even more disheartening given the latter’s sometimes hysterical immigration policies, growing and ever more visible Islamophobia and mischievous treatment of anything related to its colonial past, whether apologizing for the Parisian “ratonnade” of 1960 or the compensation of Algerian Harkis. For both, taking action against long-declared enemies of the state, the Touareg and its new allies, must be a most useful propaganda campaign.

The Islamist threat is another route to go down if one is looking for reasons for this intervention and it is the reason French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put forward in an interview with French radio station Europe 1. Yet, what remains largely unclear is what is actually meant by “Islamism” in this context. Of course, the one-size-fits-all label of “Al Qaida” appears now and again, and, of course, these Islamists are all Salafists. The problem is simply that both labels don’t tell us an awful lot about what these people want, who they are, where they come from, what they are fighting for or against and so on. The British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan goes so far as to simply deny that radical Islamism exists in the Sahara and claiming that this is all a set-up of the Algerian secret services.

This is, obviously, an unevidenced and hardly provable conspiracy theory yet it points to the utter ignorance and confusion that exists once more serious questions about the programme, identity, organisation, or even nationality and support of these so-called Islamists are asked. Some of them seem to be Touareg, some not. Some seem to have been financed by Qatar, some not. Some seem to be “left-overs” of the Libyan war, some are apparently coming from Algeria, and others are “Malian” by name although not by allegiance. Indeed, as this analysis makes clear their internal dissensions and distinctions make these groups appear less unified.

Since In Amenas it is obvious that some of these groups do represent a major threat to economic interests in the region and to the people living in their way, even with the claim of Mokhtar Belmokhtar to be representing Al Qaida. According to Jeremy Keenan’s The Dark Sahara, Belmokhtar was in the past rather more involved in smuggling and trafficking than in radical Islam, although he has been listed in 2003 on the UN black list of Al Qaida members. As of most terrorists, very little is known of this man, his intentions and workings. Al Qaida also does not seem to be the principal group in Northern Mali that promotes the saturation of Islam as a political system but Ansar Dine, which up to now has not been engaged in fighting and killings. How are the two related, if at all? No clear information is available on this.

Hence, there is much more speculation than secure knowledge about the various armed groups, their finances and financiers, the sources of their armament, and their goals and aims. Even more confusing is the question of whether they are allied with the Touareg forces, namely the MLNA (Mouvement pour la Liberation Nationale de l’Azawad), or not, and if this is an alliance of convenience or of a more durable kind. Just recently the MLNA announced that it would fight back the “Islamists”.

Given that little is known about these groups and that they are represented as terrorists in order to make up for this little and uncertain knowledge, the argument that they represent a threat to Europe is, to say the least, surprising. The right wording does seem to be rather that they are threatening European economic interests in the Sahara. They are also threatening a political order which is certainly not democratic or free but determined to protect “good relations” with France. This is why they are considered dangerous by the French government. Hollande is leading a very simplistic, post-colonial and short-sighted intervention, that’s all, and that will probably soon be too much. Just as with other operations of this kind, France is actually risking making the situation more complicated and risks engaging in a much more protracted and long-lasting war of attrition than they expect.

Critical and notably self-critical reflections on how and why France has contributed to “terror” in the world are indeed not the most obvious characteristic of this or any other French government. It is dragging other countries like the Chad into this operation, thereby legitimizing their anything but democratic governments; it is polarizing even more the antagonism between the Touareg and the Southern Malian population, making any political solution to the Touareg’s claim to autonomy (or even independence) difficult, it is conferring unwittingly a legitimacy to the radicalization of Islam in the region; it is reinforcing fears of Islamist terrorism in France and in Europe, hence playing into the hands of its own right-wing xenophobic parties and probably generally intensifying Islamophobia in France; it is intensifying the guerrilla tactics of those armed groups, hence offering more opportunities for small arms circulation; and, if Stathis Kalyvas’s The Logic of Violence in Civil War is to be believed, creating more situations of brutal exaction as uncertainty in the population’s loyalty is increasing. As one common consequence of most asymmetric and guerrilla wars of attrition is the mushrooming of camps and detention centres with their practices of surveillance and torture, the French government is also pushing even more the war in the shadows. In short, it will be creating a much bigger mess than it can fix.

Catherine Goetze is the Head of the International Studies Division at the University of Nottingham China Campus. This post originally appeared on her person blog.

An Expatriate French Political Scientist Votes

Last Sunday, we went voting. My husband and I drove two and a half hours to Shanghai, parked the car in our little secret parking lot close to the French consulate and played our part in electing a new French president. We then had lunch and drove two and a half hours back to Ningbo where I am working at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC).

We spent six hours in the car to throw a little paper in a blue envelope into a box. Why? As Cees van der Eijk said earlier, this is something that a simple rational choice account of voting cannot explain. And, indeed, one of the major reasons to vote in this election was, for me at last, the satisfaction to throw one particular ballot paper into the bin.

In French presidential elections, the voter takes one ballot paper for each candidate and then puts the paper for their preferred candidate in an envelope, while throwing the others away. The envelope is cast into a transparent ballot box according to a simple but nevertheless ceremonial procedure: the voting helper reads aloud the name on the identification card (usually the voter’s card), another voting helper confirms the name and then the citizen is invited to slip the envelope through a narrow slit into the ballot box, accompanied by the voting helper repeating the name and “a voté” (has voted). The voter then signs off and leaves the office.

The particularity of this ceremony is that it celebrates – even if only for a little minute or so – the power of the citizen. The procedure allows every single citizen to be – for a  little moment – alone with the destiny of the Republic. There is only the ballot box in front of him or her, and the envelope in hand. Next to the ballot box is usually a copy of the “Code Civil”, otherwise the table is empty.

The French historian Ernest Renanonce defined the French nation a “plébiscite de tous les jours”, a daily referendum. The idea that every single citizen is directly responsible for and connected to the Republic, is a fundamental of French republicanism even though the translation of this into the act of directly electing the President is quite recent.

When Charles de Gaulle created the 5th Republic (or more precisely had it created by his loyal adjutant Michel Debré), the President was elected by an on-off assembly of local officeholders, senators and other dignitaries. With the country on the brink of a civil war due to the difficult and painful decolonization of Algeria, de Gaulle did not want to risk losing power at a whim of the population… And yet, he skillfully used direct consultation to legitimate his politics, for instance by cementing the independence of Algeria in a referendum in 1962 –the same year he thought it safe to introduce the direct election of the President… by referendum!

For the citizen, subjectively, there is something strikingly empowering in this form of direct consultation. The feeling to participate – tant soit peu – directly in politics has  again proven to be a strong motive for citizens, as evident in the strikingly high turnout of 81.03%. It is also the explanation for another French particularity: the “white” ballot paper (i.e. vote blanc) where the voter will put no ballot paper into the envelope and then still cast it into the ballot box. Although technically an invalid vote, “white” votes are counted separately as they indicate that the citizen does not contest the republican principle of the vote but only the candidates; it is a very particular form of protest vote.

More commonly, however, the antagonizing effect of the two-round majority system enhances participation and the scores of either; this was particularly the case this time with highly polarized candidates. This could be observed particularly in  regions where either candidate was extremely unpopular; in some quarters either candidate attained scores of 70% or more!


Catherine Goetze