Election Watching: What To Look For Today In France

Le Pen Is Polling Closer To Macron Than In 2017, That Means Results Might Be More Interesting And Telling

Today, French citizens go to the polls to either reelect President Emmanuel Macron, or replace him with National Rally-leader Marine Le Pen. Either way, the result will be historic. Either Macron becomes the first French president in twenty years to be reelected – the last, Jacques Chirac, was reelected in 2002 defeating Le Pen’s father – or Le Pen becomes the first woman leader of France and only the second woman to govern one of the Five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council (Margaret Thatcher being the first).

Macron is a slightly more than slight favourite to win today. He has led in every poll, though in some polls only narrowly. The race is a rematch of the 2017 election where Macron defeated Le Pen 2-1. It is unlikely that Macron will win by anywhere near that this time, unless the polls are massively off (not an impossible scenario, however), but a Macron won in the high single-digits is the most likely scenario.

France has eighteen regions (down from 27 in 2014 after several regions were merged in territorial reform under former President Francois Hollande). Thirteen of the 18 regions are in Metropolitan France – the territory on the European Continent. Five regions are overseas: French Guiana in South America, the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the Indian Ocean islands of Mayotte and Reunion. Macron won every region in 2017, but several were close and if the polls are correct, several will flip to Le Pen today. Each region has a number of departments. There are 101 departments in France. In 2017, Macron won all but two of them.

Here are the key regions to watch today for those looking at results, and nested in each, a look at key departments to watch as well:

CORSICA

Corsica was the closest region in 2017 and likely to be a battleground this year.
MACRONLE PEN
66,819 (51%)62,982 (49%)
2017 Second Round Results, Corsica

The Mediterranean island of Corsica was the closest region in 2017. Macron won it 51-49, a less than 4,000-vote margin. Corsica, which the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, is historically a right wing stronghold, having voted for the centre right in each election since the founding of the Fifth Republic. Le Pen won Corsica with a plurality of 29 percent in the first round last week, marginally improving her first round total from the 2017 election, and that, plus the 12 percent fellow far-right candidate Eric Zemmour received on the island, might be enough to put her over the top.

Corsica’s current political situation is heavily framed by the recent murder in prison of Coriscan nationalist Yvon Colonna. Colonna, a hero of Corsican nationalists, was convicted in 2011 of the 1998 murder of a French prefect, Claude Érignac. Colonna was murdered last month by a jihadist in prison, allegedly for “disrespecting Mohammed.” His death triggered riots on the island, and Le Pen’s anti-Islam views may pull enough of their support to her for her to win the island. According to several sources I’ve inquired with about French politics over the years, Corsican nationalists previously tended to boycott French elections, or vote for the far-left candidate in the first round and boycott the second. Even a few deciding to turn out for Le Pen would give her the win here.

Corsica is made up of two departments: Corse-du-Sud (South Corsica), which includes the capital of Ajaccio, and Haute-Corse (North Corsica). Both are worth watching. Macron won the latter by 5 points in 2017, but the former, and larger, of the departments only by a mere point, or about 624 votes. Both could flip, but Corse-du-Sud would be among the first departments to flip in the country, as it was the second closest win for Macron in 2017 (only Haute-Marne in Grand Est was closer).

HAUTS-DE-FRANCE

The Northern French region of Haute-de-France is the home region of Marine Le Pen and a formerly industrialised region similar to the American Rust Belt
MACRONLE PEN
1,497,401 (53%)1,331,169 (47%)
2017 Second Round Results, Hauts-de-France

The best way to describe the French region of Hauts-de-France to an American is to just call it France’s answer to the “The Rust Belt” or, more appropriately, “Appalachia.” This region includes the historic French ports of Calais and Dunkirk on the English Channel, and reaches through the Northern French countryside to the northern exurbs of Paris. This was historically the industrial heart of France, and the region most ravaged by both world wars. The Battle of the Somme was fought here during the First World War. The regional capital, Lille, located just miles from the Belgian border, is the fourth largest city in France.

Hauts-de-France is the third most populated region in France after Ile-de-France (Paris) and Auverge-Rhone-Alpes (Lyon). Similar to the American Rust Belt and England’s North, it has suffered dramatic economic decline with the collapse of manufacturing and is France’s poorest region. Only Corsica has seen a smaller growth in per capita GDP in the last decade (notice a pattern here?). Formerly a Socialist stronghold with strong pro-labor and pro-working class political movements, the region has warmed to parties like the National Rally that point the finger at free trade and immigration for their economic decline.

It’s location at the crossroads of routes linking three cosmopolitan European capitals (London, Paris and Brussels) also affects the region’s politics. Because of this, Hauts-de-France has become a destination for immigrants, especially from Muslim countries. This is added a level of cultural, as well as economic, resentment similar to that in the American Rust Belt that has fuelled the National Rally in this region. Hauts-de-France has become Le Pen’s political base and she represents part of the region in the National Assembly. Although Macron won it by 5 in 2017, it has been trending right. Le Pen increased her first round margin in the region from her 2017 numbers by two percent (31 percent to 33 percent).

Hauts-de-France has five departments, including the only two in the entire country Le Pen won in 2017, her home department of Pas-de-Calais and the rural department of Aisne, which Le Pen won by 5 and 6 respectively. She will almost certain win both again, but the departments of Somme and Oise which Macron won by 8 and 6, will be key to watch.

If Macron does want to win Hauts-de-France, he’s going to have to get good turnout in the fifth department in the region, Nord. The department, which Macron won by 14 in 2017, is actually France’s most populated and includes the longtime leftist-stronghold of Lille. The city and the region’s turnout is key to Macron in a similar way Milwaukee or Madison is key to a Democrat winning Wisconsin. Lille’s mayor is longtime Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, who famously pushed the 35-hour workweek, one of the European left’s biggest pro-worker victories in recent memory. Macron’s recent reform proposals, including raising the retirement age, may hurt him with turnout here and may cost him the region.

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur includes the French Riviera
MACRONLE PEN
1,306,636 (55%)1,049,116 (45%)
2017 Second Round Results, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

It was during the 2007 French Presidential election, when Nicholas Sarkozy won, that my former European Studies professor answered “How would you best compare the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur to an American?” with one simple word:

Texas

That was all the answer I needed. This region, she said, was historically conservative. That wasn’t the full truth however, and really the region is probably better compared to an Arizona or Georgia or North Carolina, a formerly conservative stronghold that has largely been turned off by the direction of the right in recent years due to higher levels of education among its residents and more culturally progressive views, but has shifted left at a snail’s pace.

Provence is among the most recognisable names from French geography to Americans. This is the Southern France region home to fine wine, fields of beautiful flowers and is where the famed French Riviera is located. The capital is Marseilles, France’s third largest city, and a former Communist stronghold, but the region includes all the posh Riviera locations that ooze luxury – Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez, Toulon. The tiny municipality of Monaco borders the region. Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur also includes the inland cities of Avignon, known for being where the Popes lived in exile from Rome in the Middle Ages, and the Alpine city of Gap, famed for its winter sports.

While I expect Macron to win here – he won the region by nearly 11 in 2017 – if the race is as close as the polls suggest, the election here could get interesting. Le Pen won the same 28 percent plurality win here in the first round as she did in 2017, though Macron did remarkably better in the first round. If Le Pen is winning the election, or coming close, we will know by how she performs here.

There are six departments in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and a few of them were razor thin margins in 2017 and may flip today. The closest was Var, home to Toulon and Saint-Tropez. Macron won it by less than two points in 2017. The department of Vaucluse, home to Avignon, was won by Macron by seven, but has historically been a good region for Le Pen’s party. Her niece, Marion, represented the region in the National Assembly as a party member from 2012-2017. Both would need to flip to Le Pen if she is to have a chance in the region.

Le Pen would also have to keep Macron’s margins down in the other four departments, including Alpes-Martimes, which includes Nice. Macron won it by 11 in 2017. The other regions Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (Macron +17 in 2017); Haute-Alpes (Macron +28) and Bouches-du-Rhone (Macron +15) will likely not flip, but Macron’s margins will be worth watching there.

Grand Est

Grand Est is a historically conservative area, but Le Pen’s National Rally has proven to far right for this region…so far.
MACRONLE PEN
1,500,652 (58%)1,089,356 (42%)
2017 Second Round Results, Grand Est

Similar to Haute-de-France, Grand Est, which means Big East in French, is a historically industrial region that was a major frontier in both world wars. The Ardennes are here. The region was created out of three former regions- Champagne-Ardennes, where the famous beverage Champagne comes from. (Remember real Champagne only comes from here, otherwise its “sparking wine”). The other two regions were Alsace and Lorraine, the two areas France and Germany famously fought over that led to a century of on and off war between the two countries. The region borders the German industrial centre, the Rhineland, and its capital is Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament. Also in the region are the historical cities of Reims, Metz and Nancy.

This region shouldn’t be in play, Macron won it by 16 in 2017, but if the race is closer this time, this could be a big pickup opportunity for Le Pen. Much of the civil unrest during the Yellow Vest Protests in 2018 and 2019 occurred in this region and it has a history of voting to the right before Macron, having been won by centre right candidates Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy in the 1990s and 2000s, thanks to their strength in the Strasbourg area. Le Pen may still be too far to the right for this region however, or, similar to places like Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, she may be too far right for urban areas that once voted for the centre-right, but be acceptable for the formerly left-leaning rural areas.

As mentioned earlier, the department of Haute-Marne in Grand Est was the closest department in the country in 2017. Macron won the department by less than a point, 861 votes. With Macron’s unpopularity in the eastern countryside, I would bet the farm that this is a Le Pen flip today. The department of Ardennes was also very close in 2017, Macron by less than two points, and may very well be a flip this time. I would also watch for a Le Pen pickup in the department of Meuse in Lorraine (Macron +4 in 2017). The department, which includes Verdun, is another where Macron’s popularity has sagged. The department of Aube, which includes some of the eastern exurbs of Paris, was Macron +8 in 2017, and is worth watching. Macron won the rest of the departments in Grand Est by double digits, including Marne (Marcon +14 in 2017), Moselle (Macron +14), and Vosges (Macron +10). The incumbent will almost certainly win Meurthe-et-Moselle (Macron +22), home to the city of Nancy, and Bas-Rhin (Macron +24), home to Strasborg and Haut-Rhin (Macron +16), both on the German border, but his margins in these areas, which includes cities where the Yellow Vest protests took place, will be worth watching.

Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

MACRONLE PEN
815,709 (60%)532,935 (40%)
2017 Second Round Results, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

The region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté translates to English as Burgundy-Free Country. Now you recognise it. This is the heart of French Wine Country. It’s capital, Dijon, is the namesake of that fancy mustard. You probably think of this part of the country as a rich, posh area, but actually it is extremely rural, agricultural and one of France’s poorest regions. Its France’s answer to the Upper Midwest, and much like the Upper Midwest, it is historically a swing region. Centre-right presidents Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy all won here. Macron, who sits on the fence between centre-left and centre-right, should be a shoo-in here, and he’ll probably win it (He won the region by 20 points in 2017), but if there is a massive decline in his support, its because of regions like Burgundy. The Yellow Vest protests bled down into this region, notably in the city of Belfort near the Swiss border, and rising fuel prices and COVID-19 restrictions have badly hurt the agricultural and tourism industries in this region.

Very few of the region’s eight departments were close in 2017, though Haute-Saône, which borders Haute-Marne to the north, was Macron +4 in 2017 and could be an easy Le Pen flip. Territoire de Belfort, which includes the city of Belfort, a major centre of protest during the Yellow Vest Movement, might also be worth watching. A longtime centre-right stronghold, Macron won it by 16 in 2017 and if Le Pen is doing well there, it’s an indication she’s winning centre right support she lost in 2017. The department of Yonne, the closest to Paris in the region, was Macron +10 in 2017 and is worth watching as Le Pen did much better in the first round there this time than in 2017. The other departments, including Dijon’s home department, Côte-d’Or (Macron +28 in 2017), Jura (Macron +22), Doubs (Macron +28), Nièvre (Macron +20) and Saône-et-Loire (Macron +24) will likely not be competitive, but the incumbent’s margins there will be important to note.

Occitanie

The Occitanie is historically left-leaning, but any increase in support for Le Pen may foretell a realignment in the entire left-leaning West of the country.
MACRONLE PEN
1,759,816 (63%)1,033,853 (37%)
2017 Second Round Results, Occitanie

There should be no reason for Macron to lose the Southern French region of Occitanie today, except for one – he’s lost the election, and for that reason I include this region in our discussion.

In 2017, Macron won this region by 26 points. It is historically a left-leaning region with a long history of supporting Socialist and Communist parties, but much of Occitanie, which borders Spain, is culturally conservative. Catholicism plays a major role in life here, it is the location of Lourdes, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Catholic faith. If the new right’s focus on cultural grievances plays well anywhere in left-leaning areas, it will play here. Besides that, the region saw much unrest during Yellow Vest protests, especially in the capital Toulouse, and in the city of Perpignan near the Spanish border, where Le Pen’s party scored a major victory in 2020 with the election of the city’s mayor Louis Aliot. It was the first time her party won a victory in a city of that size.

Pyrénées-Orientales, the department of which Perpignan is the capital, was fairly close in 2017, with Macron winning by only 5. Le Pen actually improved her first round numbers in the department compared to 2017, so I would rank this department high on the flip list. It is noted for being a Catalan-speaking region and for having a cultural connection to the Catalan region across the border in Spain.

None of other 12 departments in Occitanie are particularly competitive. Only Hérault (Macron +18 in 2017), Aude (Macron +10) and Gard (Macron +10), all on the Mediterranean Coast, are worth watching. The rural department of Ariège was one of the few that gave far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melechon a plurality win in the first round, a testament to the department’s pro-environmental politics, and Macron came in third. Macron won the department by 26 points in 2017. As with some of the other regions, Macron’s margins in the cities will matter, and that means watching his numbers in Haute-Garonne, which includes the city of Toulouse, where a number of protests during the Yellow Vest Movement occurred. Macron won the department by a whopping 34 points in 2017.

Any Macron collapse in support in Occitanie would be instructive to see if there is any reduction in his support in the Greater West of the country, the longtime left-wing strongholds like Aquitaine and the Loire Valley. Yellow Vest did find some roots in this area and Macron is not nearly as left-wing as the Socialist Party was before him. It would be interesting to see if there has been any backlash in these areas. Occitanie would offer key insight.

MAYOTTE

Mayotte, an overseas territory to watch
MACRONLE PEN
19,140 (57%)14,374 (43%)
2017 Second Round Results, Mayotte

None of the overseas territories and regions are really interesting election-wise. Macron should win them all. Notably, Le Pen has seen her support crumble in New Caledonia in the Pacific. She got 29 percent in the first round there in 2017 and came within five points of winning it in the second round, but this year she got only 19 percent to Macron’s 40 percent.

But the island of Mayotte off the coast of Africa could be interesting to watch. Macron won the island by 14 points in 2017, but Le Pen already surpassed her 43 percent from 2017 in the first round, and right wing parties combined to make up about 51 percent of the vote in the first round.

What’s interesting here is that the majority of the population in Mayotte are African Muslim, not quite the demographic you think you’d see voting for Le Pen, but Mayotte’s politics are complicated. The island broke away from the nation of Comoros in the 1970s when the rest of the island chain voted to become independent of France. Mayotte later became an overseas territory of France. The island is extremely poor, and its population has, as of late, felt neglected by the French government. There’s a strong undercurrent of French nationalism on the island and a lot of unrest over recent immigration to the island from Comoros, which many locals fear is an underhanded attempt by Comoros to woo the island back. Economic grievances, French nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment play into Le Pen’s hands and what happens on Mayotte today may provide us with an clue into whether or not far-right politics can play in minority communities in Western democracies, despite being dripping with racism. This is something Americans are asking themselves after former President Donald Trump’s surprising performance among some Hispanic and Black communities in 2020.

What Else Am I Watching?

Macron won two regions he lost in the first round in 2017: Normandie and Centre Val de Loire. This was largely due to the collapse in support of the centre right parties, but it indicates that this support has largely gone to Macron and not to Le Pen in these regions. He should win both easily. But the two biggest things I’ll be watching outside of these key regions and departments are:

1.) Turnout for Macron in major cities. Is he able to turn out votes in Paris and other major cities in large enough margins despite a lot of disappointment with his first term among key constituencies.

2.) Realignment in the rural west. Is Le Pen able to make some inroads in the longtime left-leaning strongholds in the West, where certain demographics, namely less educated, culturally conservative, voters exist? It would fit the type of realignment we have seen happening in Western democracies across the world. The French Left have kept rural support longer than their counterparts in Germany, the UK or the United States and it’ll be interesting to see if that continues to happen.

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