LILLE-There are 36,680 municipalities in France, most of which were created during the French Revolution to form the basis of France’s administrative system. From Paris and its 2,200,000 inhabitants, to the six municipalities left with barely any inhabitants after World War I, all of them will elect their Municipal Councils on March 23 and 30.
These municipalities possess most of the local governing powers. They run schools, direct planning, and manage water, public gardens, streets, and the police. To finance these responsibilities, they receive grants from the French government and collect taxes based on land, homes, and business revenue. Despite these sources of income, many smaller municipalities find it difficult to balance their budgets.
In response to this financial struggle, France created structures that are made of up several municipalities in 1982, called intercommunalités in French. These inter-municipal structures help smaller municipalities financially and also solve governance issues that arise from the municipal system. One major issue is that large metropolitan areas encompass many municipalities, leading to incoherent planning and policies.
There are three types of inter-municipal structures, urban communities for bigger cities, agglomeration communities for middle-sized cities, and municipal communities for the smaller municipalities. These 2,145 intercommunalités take over some of the municipalities’ responsibilities and manage to save some room in their budgets by using the economies of scale.
Both municipalities and the larger inter-municipal structures will elect their councilors at the end of March. On March 23, the first round of the election is open to anyone who has managed to gather a list of candidates big enough the fill the Municipal Council. People vote for one list that contains the names for both the municipal and inter-municipal elections, but results are counted separately for the two elections. In order to win in the first round, a list must win more than 50% of the vote in the municipality and represent at least 25% of the total electorate in that municipality. The same standards are used to judge the outcomes of the inter-municipal elections. If a list wins in the first round, it receives 50% of the seats and the remaining 50% are distributed between all of the remaining lists that have gathered more than 5% of the votes.
If no list wins the absolute majority in the first election, a second round is called for Sunday, March 30 between all candidates that managed to gather at least 10% of the vote in the first round. Lists that won between 5% and 10% in the first round can merge with those who won over 10%. The winner gets 50% of the seats and the other seats are shared between the lists that qualified for the second round. The mayor is then elected by the Municipal Council on their first meeting. In almost every case, he is the leader of the winning list.
In both rounds of the election, a person only votes for one list that contains the names of the councilors for the municipalities and for the inter-municipalities, meaning one must vote for the same list in both the municipal election and the larger inter-municipal election.
Each municipality sends a number of councilors proportional to their population in the inter-municipal community. The president of the inter-municipality is then elected by the inter-municipal council on their first meeting. In most cases, he is also the Mayor of the main city in the inter-municipality.
The Municipal Elections are the most important to the French after the Presidential election. Many national politicians are or were mayors: François Hollande in Tulle, Jean-Marc Ayrault in Nantes, Nicolas Sarkozy in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Jacques Chirac in Paris, etc. The analysts will therefore observe the results of important names, of important cities and the total weight of national parties.
The Parti Socialiste (PS), who won most of the important cities in 2008, (26 cities out of the 42 with more than 100,000 inhabitants, including Paris) is looking to keep control of most cities. They might succeed thanks to their local policies that are appreciated by the left-leaning urban elite. But they are likely to suffer due to the unpopularity of the Hollande’s government in the suburbs and the more rural municipalities, costing them the election on the national level.
The Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) will try to regain some of the important cities (Paris, Toulouse or Strasbourg) that they lost in 2001 and 2008, as well as keep control of their traditional strongholds (Marseille, Nice and Bordeaux). Although they might win on the national level, they are threatened by the rise of the Front National (FN), which could take a decisive share of their vote.
The FN has not had control over a city since the 1995-2001 term when the four cities governed by the FN – Toulon, Orange, Vitrolles and Marignane, all in the South East – experienced dramatic management and financial problems. Although the two-round system plays against them (they have no allies in the second round), they have chances to win in the Southeast, the North, and the East, which are regions massively affected by unemployment or facing large-scale immigration. Winning a city would be an important achievement for Marine Le Pen’s party.
Other parties, either for the Left or the Right, will try to hold on to the rare cities they are controlling and to reach the 5% threshold to merge with either the PS or the UMP in the second round. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (PG) is aiming higher at the 10% threshold to maintain their candidate against the PS, even if it should cost the Left an election.
Next Sunday, find the detailed stakes for each important cities.
Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.