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An Explanation of the French Regional Elections

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Today is the first of the two rounds of French regional elections. For those of you unfamiliar with the unique way French regional elections work, and what this election represents, here is a quick rundown.

  • There are 13 regions in France comprising 101 departments. Paris is the department within the Ile-de-France region.
  • Each region has a body of elected councilors, the number depending on population of the region, elected approximately every five years.
  • Regional councils are responsible for local affairs, including economic development, transportation, public education, sustainable development and planning, urban zoning and land management, and support of small and medium-sized businesses. They also share responsibility for tourism, culture and sports with internal departments that make up each region.
  • There are 1757 seats to fill.
  • Generally people vote by party, but the different political parties in France can also form coalitions to present their candidates in one “list” (ie, Socialists can merge with Green Party).
  • There are 177 electoral lists/parties, with a total of 21,456 candidates total in France. The Ile-de-France region has about a dozen lists/parties for voters to choose from.
  • There are two rounds of voting, December 6th and December 13th.
  • If one list/party receives more than 50% of the vote in either round then they automatically get 25% of the available seats, with the rest of the seats distributed proportionately to any list/party receiving at least 5% of the vote.
  • This means that even if one party wins 90% of the votes, they still only control 25% of the seats, with the remaining 75% being controlled by other parties of less than 25% each).
  • If no list/party reaches 50%, any of them having won 10% will be included in a second round of voting, and seats are allocated in the same way as the first round.
  • Lists/parties that won at least 5-10% of the votes in the first round can merge and form a new list/party in the second round (creating a different choice for voters).

While regional councils have no national powers, the elections are gaining a lot of press because of three reasons:

  1. It’s the first election since France’s 22 regions merged into just 13 regions in 2014
  2. It’s the first election since the shootings in France, and the press predicts this will favor the anti-immigrant, right-wing Front National party.
  3. Political pundits like to imagine these elections will have some effect on the presidential and senate elections in 2017.

How Voting Works in France

  • Any French citizen can register at their local town hall (or through a proxy) for a Carte Electoral which lists the voting station in your neighborhood.
  • About two weeks before elections, voters get a voting packet from the Ministry of the Interior in the mail (where each party gets two equal-sized pages with their campaign promises and list of candidates). I have never received any other mailings for elections (I suspect it’s regulated, but I haven’t looked that up). I have seen some people handing out flyers at my local market.
  • Each voting station (in town halls, schools, other municipal buildings) has metal billboards set up a few weeks before the elections where each party gets one panel for posters (for equal “face time”).
  • France, like most European Union countries, do not allow political ads on any broadcast medium (TV, radio, newspapers), in order to level the playing field, although the major parties tend to get all of the press attention.
  • Elections are always on Sundays, when most (but not all) French do not work. The hours are 8am-6pm, but some regions can move this to 7pm or 8pm in large cities like Paris. All voting is done at 8pm (France is all in one time zone except for the overseas territories and departments like Martinique and French Guyana).
  • Voters show up at their voting station with a Carte Electoral and photo ID (France issues free national identity cards to all citizens).
  • Everything is done manually, not with computers or electronic devices. Each voter takes an empty envelope and one ballot for each party/list into a little booth, placing the chosen ballot into the envelope and discarding the rest into the recycle bin. There are at least two voting witnesses who check voter ID against the registered list, watch as you drop your envelope into the clear box (or urne, as they call it), then you sign next to your name on the list and they stamp your card.

Personally, the whole thing usually takes me five minutes. This is my seventh election and I’ve never seen a line (sometimes there’s one or two people in front of me), nor heard of problems with lines or any kind of waiting in France. All Parisians are within a short walk to their voter station. This is probably not the case in the countryside, but, again, I’ve never heard that access to a voting station is an issue in France, so they seem to have it under control. 

More articles on France’s regional elections in English:


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  • Out here in the suburbs-turning-to-countryside part of the Yvelines, there are 8 voting stations in our town of 10,000. No one has to walk far at all and there are no lines either.

  • Well done and said Heather! A very good explanation about the goals and challenges of this today's vote! May I add to that a financial problem and therefore resources for these new created regions?