The French regional elections 2021 – a dress rehearsal for next year’s Presidential elections?

By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor

Results of the first round of the 2021 French regional elections



Note: The distinction between the Right and Centre-Right in the map is false. They are both the Right.

The election results of the first round on 20 June were widely described in the French media as a slap in the face for President Macron and his La Republique en Marche party [LREM] and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale [RN].

Both leaders were hoping to use this month’s elections to consolidate their goal to be the two candidates who would eventually face each other in the second round of the 2022 presidential elections.

Their attempt to make the election into a demonstration of who was the best person to protect the so-called French identity and security backfired in the first round. The election results for both parties revealed that they do not have a popular strategy to improve the lives of the French people.

The second round of the French regional and departmental elections takes place tomorrow, Sunday 27 June.

It will decide who governs France’s 14 regional councils and 101 of the country’s departmental administrations. Whilst the powers of these bodies are limited, they do have budgets of billions of Euros for regional development, local transport, education, and other local services.

The right

Macron’s LREM failed to take first place in any region, and in unity slates with other Centrists only won 10.9% of the votes cast.

The LREM suffered a huge embarrassment in the Haut de France region with the defeat of five members of the cabinet from Macron’s government who had been sent to the region to boost the party’s chances against other parties on the right.

Last Sunday’s first-round also revealed that Macron’s long-standing attempt to win over the majority of the traditional party of the right – notably the LR – has hit a brick wall.

His claim in the 2017 presidential campaign to be neither a leader of the left nor the right has been completely exposed in the last four years by his attacks on the public sector, his centralisation of power, and his poor record on Covid.  His call to create a new Centre has failed.

Macron’s position on the Right has been cemented by his government’s repeated whipping up of racism and Islamophobia through the bogus security and identity agenda [notably, in the Islamophobic bill on Separatism] in an attempt to distract attention from big economic problems, and to demonise those who oppose racism by adopting the phraseology of the far-right in his attacks on so-called Islamo-Gauchisme and the rights of oppressed people to organise autonomously in student unions and elsewhere.

The first-round proves that Macron is the LREM, and the LREM is Macron. It has no existence without Macron.

It should also be noted that the LREM has a tiny presence in local government and regional government.

Les Républicains LR won 29.3% of those who voted last week – a larger share of the vote than predicted. The party is now favourite to retain the three regions they already control and are in a very close fight with the RN in Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur [PACA], where the left parties who were entitled to stand in the second round have pulled out urging people to vote to defeat the RN.

The LR also benefitted compared to their opponents from the higher than average turnout of people over 65 and wealthier voters.

The far-right

Marine Le Pen’s RN went into the first round on a wave of media hype with polls indicating her party would come first in five regions. However, across France, RN’s vote share of 19.1% was nine points lower than its performance at the last regional polls in 2015. The latter result was in the wake of the horrific Paris terrorist attacks which took place a month before polling. [Please see the decline since 2015 in the RN vote by region here]

The FN led in six regions in 2015 in the first round:  PACA, Hauts-de-France, Grand Est, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Centre-Val de Loire and Occitanie. In 2021 it only leads at the same stage in one, PACA. A win on Sunday would be a major breakthrough, as neither the RN nor its previous incarnation, the FN, have ever won a regional presidency.

As Clea Caulcutt explains, Le Pen’s attempts to de-demonise her party has led to deep rifts within the party and its vote base.

But it is important not to exaggerate the significance of the regional election results as a guide to next year’s presidential elections. The RN is more a party of protest than of government. Its voters and members are much more fascinated by national elections than local ones.

The Left

Although the Left was divided, it was still able to maintain the leadership in five regions with Socialist candidates and other Left allies in four of them, and with a united Left/Green alliance in another. Nationally, the Left still has the largest bloc of votes with 36.5%. However, the balance within the Left vote has changed, as the Greens have improved greatly on their vote in 2015.

During Macron’s presidency there have been massive protests against his government, most notably by the Gilets Jaunes and opponents of the attacks on pensions.

However, all sections of the Left have been unable to consolidate their relationship with those movements to significantly advance the national electoral prospects of the Left and its chances of winning national elections, for the Presidency or the National Assembly. The Gilets Jaunes were against working with political parties on the Left.

The regional election results underline the divisions on the left. The newly formed left coalition in the second round in the Île-de-France between the Socialist Party, the Greens, and La France Insoumise [LFI] shows great potential.

The Left is coming under huge pressure to exclude the LFI from any electoral pacts in the second round. There is a vicious campaign by the leading candidate of the right in the Île-de-France, Valérie Pécresse , to attack the LFI in tune with similar attacks to silence the anti-imperialists and anti-racists as Islamo-Gauchistes. This onslaught has been joined by Manuel Valls, who was the Prime Minister of France under socialist President Hollande. He has urged socialists to vote for the right-wing Pécresse and not the Socialist Party.

In other regions, sectarianism has prevented left unity against the right, which will probably lead to avoidable defeats, either in number or scale.

Abstentionism, a crisis of legitimacy

In last Sunday’s first- round there was an all-time record level of abstentionism in French elections in the 5th Republic of 66.7%. Turnout, at 33.3%, was 16% lower than the first round of the 2015 election.

As Le Monde reported, the abstention of voters in the first round of the regional and departmental elections with people under 35 and the poorest sections of society with levels of more than 90% in places.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise declared on 21 June, “This is the worst level of abstention in the entire 5th Republic. A democracy without voters is no longer really a democracy.”

However, it should be noted that increasing abstentionism is a long-term feature of local elections. [For a detailed analysis of the patterns of abstentionism across France please see here]

Many explanations have been offered for the record-high abstentionism last weekend. Some are self-serving, like Marine Le Pen’s chastisement of the insufficient loyalty of her vote base; others are more technical like the failures in the organisation of the elections which has been laid at Macron’s door; or fears around Covid, which has been refuted by surveys after the first round.

There is also a big advantage to the incumbent in regional elections. The degree of patronage, if not outright clientelism, makes it easier for those already in power to consolidate their position with vested interests. In turn, that adds another level of cynicism about the electoral process.

Asked by the daily paper Libération to explain their refusal to participate, 44 percent said the projects proposed by the candidates were of no interest to ordinary voters, 42 percent said they were fed up with politics, and 37 percent saying they wanted to let the uncomprehending political elite know that they were tired of being ignored.

As reports, “According to the Ipsos / Sopra Steria poll ‘Understanding the vote of the French’, for France Televisions, Radio France and La Chaîne Parliamentaire, 39% of respondents who were not sure whether to vote on Sunday believed that these elections would not change their daily lives. Throughout the campaign, voters seem to have struggled to understand what is at stake in this election and to take an interest in the candidates, most of whom are largely unknown to the general public. They also did not have the opportunity to use these interim elections to exercise a sanction vote against the government, since the presidential majority does not rule any region.”

The results of the second round will record the temperature of the class struggle in France and pose big questions for the Left on how it can unite, defeat the Right and win a majority in the years ahead.

Socialist Action will analyse the outcome of the second round in a future article.


Useful links on the 2021 French regional and departmental elections in the first round

The official government site for results:

An excellent summary of the results region by region: