Stéphane Lauer

Le Monde journalist explains stakes of upcoming local elections in France

The French electorate will take part in a two-round series of elections on March 22 and 29 to elect departmental councils in 2,054 cantons across France with the exception of the major cities of Paris and Lyon, which hold a separate administrative status. The cantons were re-drawn based on population data released by INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies) in December 2013, and the number of cantons was reduced drastically. The elections come ahead of regional elections scheduled for December 2015 and have initiated conversations about the 2017 presidential elections. Stéphane Lauer, U.S. Correspondent for Le Monde, answered some questions for the French-American Foundation to give us a better understanding of what these elections mean and why they matter on a national level.

Stéphane Lauer, 49, has been a journalist on the leading French daily newspaper Le Monde since 1994. Previously director of the paper’s economics desk and then a senior opinion writer and commentator. He's currently correspondent for Le Monde in New York since 2013. Education: bachelor of political science (Institut d'études politiques de Toulouse), master of political science (Paris 1, La Sorbonne), degree in journalism (Centre d'enseignement du journalisme de Strasbourg). He has also written "Renault, une Révolution française" (JC Lattès 2005).


Lauer's responses were translated from French to English by the French-American Foundation. You can also read his original responses in French below.

How significant are these departmental elections in France? How much political sway do departmental councils have? Will the outcome of these elections truly impact the administrative functioning of France?
The role of these departmental elections consists of electing councilors, who will sit at the heart of local assemblies for which the principal roles pertain to the domain of social action (assistance to the impoverished, elderly, disabled) and health, as well as the maintenance of middle schools and departmental autoways. These function come from a recent shift in responsibilities based on a territorial reform currently in the process of being adopted. Departmental councils subsequently act, as a general rule, as an intermediary for political decisions made at the national level, and their general role is to administer these policies and incorporate them into local administration. From this point of view, the impact of these elections on the actual governance of the nation is relatively limited. However, these departmental councilors comprise, alongside municipal and regional councilors, the grands électeurs, those who elect the nation’s senators. A shift in political equilibrium in these cantonal elections could tip the majority in the Senate when it is subsequently re-elected.


L’enjeu de ces élections départementales consiste à élire des conseillers, qui siègeront au sein d’assemblées locales dont les principales compétences s’exercent dans le domaine de l’action sociale (aide aux plus démunis, aux personnes âgées, handicapés), de la santé, mais aussi de l’entretien des collèges et des routes départementales. Ces fonctions font l’objet d’un redécoupage dans le cadre d’une réforme territoriale, qui est en cours d’adoption. Les conseils départementaux agissent donc, en règle générale, comme des relais d’une politique décidée au niveau national, qu’ils ne font que décliner sur le plan local. De ce point de vue, l’impact de ces élections sur la façon dont est gouverné le pays est relativement limité. En revanche, les conseillers départementaux font partie, avec les conseillers municipaux et régionaux, des « grands électeurs ». Ce sont eux qui élisent les sénateurs. Un changement d’équilibre politique à l’occasion des élections cantonales peut faire basculer la majorité au Sénat lorsque celui-ci sera renouvelé à son tour.

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Politically, what is at stake in these elections? Who stands to gain the most and who stands to lose the most?
There should be two winners – the far right and the right – and one big loser, the Socialist Party (PS). The Front National (FN) could reach new heights in terms of electoral percentages ; the latest polls indicate 30 percent. The party of Marine Le Pen, which today comprises only two elected officials at the departmental level (in le Var and le Vaucluse) could undoubtedly take numerous seats. However, the conquest of entire departments seems more limited : Four are truly in a position to pass to a FN ticket. Meanwhile, the Union of moderate right and center parties is in a position to take more than 60 departments out of 98 in question. This conquest will clearly be to the detriment of the Socialist Party and its allies, which could lose more than 20 departments. It is worth noting that the Communist Party could in these elections lose the last department it holds, Allier (in the Auvergne Region in central France).


Il devrait y avoir deux gagnants, l’extrême droite et la droite et un grand perdant le Parti socialiste (PS). Le Front national (FN) pourrait atteindre des sommets en terme de score électoral – les derniers sondages parlent de 30%. Le parti de Marine Le Pen, qui ne compte aujourd’hui que deux élus départementaux (dans le Var et le Vaucluse) devrait remporter sans doute de nombreux sièges. Toutefois, la conquête de départements entiers s’annonce plus limitée : quatre sont véritablement en position de passer sous étiquette FN.

En revanche l’Union de la droite et du centre est en position de remporter une soixantaine de départements sur 98. Une conquête qui se fera au détriment du PS et de ses alliés, qui pourraient perdre une vingtaine de départements. A noter que le Parti communiste pourrait à l’occasion de ces élections perdre le dernier département qu’il détient, à savoir l’Allier.

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What do these elections mean for President François Hollande and his Socialist Party? What do the anticipated results and discussions surrounding these elections reveal about voter sentiment toward the performance of Hollande and his party since sweeping the government in 2012? As first-term president Hollande and his party look forward to the 2017 presidential elections, how much do these elections serve as a litmus test for larger elections to come?
Once again, these elections present themselves as a sanction vote against the power in place. This will constitute another defeat after the loss of numerous large cities in 2013 and the loss of the Senate majority in 2014. The fact that the voter-turnout rate continues to decrease and that a considerable number of voters are preparing to vote for the far right indicates a growing disenchantment within the electorate. On the left, voters are reproaching François Hollande for not keeping promises made during his presidential campaign, and more generally, the French doubt the ability of the government to reduce unemployment, which exceeds 10 percent of the working-age population. Tax increases at the beginning of his term have only crystalized this discontent.

Even if these local elections serve as a serious warning for François Hollande, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the 2017 president elections. However, it will be interesting to observe the behaviour of the UMP and the PS in second-round face-off situations (March 29) or triangulaires (scenarios in which three candidates advance past the first round of voting) that could lead to a FN victory.

If the rise of the far right becomes a reality, this outcome will only confirm the party’s ability to advance to the second round in the 2017 presidential elections. The question will then be who goes head-to-head with Marine Le Pen – the candidate from the PS or from the UMP.


Une fois de plus, ces élections se présentent comme un vote sanction pour le pouvoir en place. Cela constituerait une nouvelle défaite après la perte de nombreuses grandes villes en 2013 et la majorité au Sénat en 2014. Le fait que le taux d’abstention s’annonce élevé et qu’un nombre important d’électeurs s’apprêtent à voter pour l’extrême droite traduit un désenchantement de l’électorat. A gauche, on reproche à François Hollande ne pas avoir tenu les promesses faites pendant sa campagne présidentielle et plus généralement, les Français doutent de la capacité du gouvernement à réduire un chômage qui dépasse désormais les 10% de la population active. La hausse des impôts au début de son mandat n’a fait que cristalliser les mécontentements.

Même si ces élections locales sont un sérieux avertissement pour François Hollande, il est difficile d’en tirer des conclusions définitives pour l’élection présidentielle. Toutefois, il sera intéressant d’observer le comportement de l’UMP et du PS dans les situations de duels ou de triangulaires qui pourraient conduire à la victoire du FN.

Si la montée de l’extrême droite se concrétise, cela ne fera que confirmer sa capacité à être au second tour en 2017. La question consistera alors à savoir qui sera en face de Marine le Pen : le candidat du PS ou celui de l’UMP.

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Much talk has focused on the continued emergence of France’s far-right Front National party. A poll released in Le Figaro on February 23 predicted that the FN would obtain as much as 30 percent of votes in the first round, putting the far-right party ahead of the moderate-right UMP party, which polled at 28 percent. What does the continued presence and increasing success of France’s far right say about French politics and the French electorate?
The Front National party is becoming more and more present as the electorate shows skepticism vis-à-vis the ability of traditional parties, notably the UMP and the PS, to resolve the problems confronting the French people. Mass unemployment adds to a sense of loss of direction in an age of globalization perceived as a threat and not as an opportunity for the most fragile segments of the French population. There is equally a growing skepticism toward the European project supported by the PS and the UMP. This amounts to a vote that is anti-establishment, which is not unique to France. However, contrary to Greece or Spain, where the extreme left unites this discontent, in France, it’s the far right that embodies this protest. A difference that could explain the difference between these countries, France, in its recent history, has not known an authoritarian regime from the far right, an experience that undoubtedly serves as a deterrent in Greece and Spain.


Une partie de plus en plus importante de l’électorat fait preuve de scepticisme vis-à-vis de la capacité des partis traditionnels, principalement UMP et PS, à résoudre les problèmes auxquels sont confrontés les Français. Le chômage de masse se mêle à un sentiment de perte de repères dans une mondialisation vécue comme une menace et non comme une opportunité pour la partie la plus fragile de la population. Il y a également de plus en plus de scepticisme vis-à-vis du projet européen porté par le PS et l’UMP. Cela aboutit à l’émergence d’un vote contestataire, qui n’est pas propre à la France. Mais contrairement à la Grèce ou à l’Espagne, où l’extrême gauche fédère ces mécontentements, en France c’est l’extrême droite qui incarne la contestation. Une différence qui peut s’expliquer qu’à la différence de ces deux pays, la France, dans son histoire récente, n’a pas connu de régime autoritaire d’extrême droite. Des expériences qui servent sans doute de repoussoir en Grèce et en Espagne.

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Electoral officials have implemented a new law that will ensure that 50 percent of the elected officials will be women as France continues its efforts to promote gender parity in politics, as only 16 percent of department councilors are currently women. Instead of voting for single candidates in the 2,054 cantons, voters will select binôme tickets, comprising one man and one woman. What is the general reaction to this new gender-inclusive policy in France? Is there a general sense that this and other efforts across various levels of government are simply symbolic or truly will increase the political influence of women, who gained the right to vote in France in 1944?
This binominal paritaire system of election is not supported unanimously, far from it, which proves that this is not just a symbolic gesture. It is a true innovation without equivalent in the rest of the world. A first step was taken with the law of 2008 that obligated that a candidate and his or her deputy / running mate be opposite sexes. In practice, this measure quickly found its limits, as most of the time, this translated into a male candidate and female substitute, called to take his place in case of death or other major incident. This time, there will be a real parity; in each department, there will be as many women as men. This is a serious upheaval to the status quo. In addition to a recent strict limitation on the number of political positions one individual can hold simultaneously, this measure opens the doors for a diversification of political representation in France. This measure will allow France to make up for a decades-long delay in creating greater political gender parity.


Ce mode de scrutin « binominal paritaire » ne fait pas l’unanimité, loin s’en faut. Ce qui prouve bien que l’on n’est pas dans le domaine du symbole. Il s’agit d’une véritable innovation, sans équivalent ailleurs dans le monde. Une première étape avait été franchie avec la loi de 2008, qui obligeait que le candidat et son suppléant soient de sexes différents. Dans la pratique, cette mesure a vite trouvé ses limites car, la plupart du temps, cela se traduisait par un candidat titulaire et une suppléante, appelée à siéger en cas de décès, ou autre cause majeure. Cette fois, il y aura une parité réelle : dans chaque conseil départemental, il y aura autant de femmes que d’hommes. Il s’agit d’un véritable bouleversement, qui, ajouté à la limitation stricte du cumul des mandats, ouvre la porte au renouvellement de la représentation politique. Cette mesure va permettre à la France de combler une partie du retard considérable qu’elle avait accumulé ces dernières décennies en matière de parité.

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