Voting in French municipal elections


Some British residents in France may be voting for the first time in the municipal elections.   There is still much confusion as to how the voting system works, and even people who have already voted in a previous election seem not to fully understand the procedures. The following text is therefore intended to clarify the rules, which are indeed complicated, especially for British voters who are not familiar with the ‘list’ system used in municipal elections!

a) The number of seats on a council relates to the size of the population, as set out in the following table:

Number of councillors for communes under 3500:

under 100: 9
100 – 499: 11
500 – 1499: 15
1500 – 2499: 19
2500 – 3499: 23

b) Presenting lists:
There are different regulations for communes of different sizes, but this explanation applies only to those of under 3500 inhabitants, which is where the vast majority of British residents live (except for the large cities). There are slight differences between rules for communes of under 2500 and those of 2500 – 3500 :

In communes of between 2500- 3500 inhabitants, only full lists are acceptable, ie the number of names must correspond exactly to the number of seat on the council. It is quite hard for any ‘opposition’ to put forward a full list in communes of 2500 – 3500 inhabitants, so sometimes the maire’s list will include a few names considered as representing ‘an opposition’. A list is entitled to a subsidy from the commission de propagande if formally registered at the (sous)-préfecture a week before each round. In communes of under 2500 inhabitants, the number of names on a list does not have to correspond exactly to the number of seats on the council: whilst there is usually at least one full list (usually put together by the outgoing maire), a list can even be just a few names, or even just one, or it can have more names than seats: this is a way of giving the voters a choice of individuals within an agreed list.

Lists can be presented up to the last minute, as long as they are with the maire before the opening of voting at 8am on election day. If you want to present a list, you should prepare enough sheets of paper for the number of voters in the commune and take them to the mairie. There are certain maximum sizes of format to be used, of which details are available from the Préfecture’s Bureau des Elections, but basically the rules are: 74 mm x 105 mm for an individual candidate, 105 mm x 148 mm for two names, and 148 mm x 210 mm for 3 – 31 names.

Lists can be distributed around the commune before the election, for example in letter boxes. Voters may use these lists as their ballot paper. A list can be accompanied by a circulaire or profession de foi (a sort of mini-manifesto), which should not be bigger than A4 paper. This can be circulated before the election along with the list. There is no formal registration for candidates in these communes, but anyone hoping to stand should have been registered on the appropriate liste électorale before December 31st. Allowing your name to be included on a list, or presenting your own list means that you are formally accepting to be a candidate. If the full number of councillors is not elected on the first round, a modified list is presented at the second round which should take account of the number of available seats left to fill.

Voting: in all communes of under 3,500 inhabitants you do not have to vote for a whole list: it is possible to vote for selected names on different lists and to cross off or add on particular names, either from another list or not; you can even add on names of people who have not figured on any lists: this is called panachage.

When you get to the mairie, you must present your carte électorale. There will be at least one list on the table for you to pick up: you then go into the isoloir to make up your list. You can either put this list unchanged into the voting box, or make changes as desired. You can put more than one list into the ballot box, provided that you have not left more names than seats: any such vote would be disqualified. If a single list is put in the ballot-box, which has more names added to it than there are seats, the vote will not be disqualified, but any supernumerary names (counting from the bottom upwards) will be not be taken into consideration.
If you don’t know any of the names on the lists, it is time you started to talk to your neighbours!

c) Getting elected:

Votes are counted for individual candidates rather than for lists; to win on the first round a candidate must win over 50% of the votes (ie 50% + 1), and this must represent 25% of the registered voters. If not, a second round is necessary,when a relative majority is sufficient for a candidate to be elected.

One of the oddities of the system of means that it is possible to get elected without having been on any list: what this could mean in practice is that if you want to be on the council but you don’t want to put your name on a list (for example, if you don’t want to appear to be challenging the main list, but haven’t been asked to be on it), you could lobby voters in the commune to vote for you by simply adding your name to the list they put in the box. However, this could well be interpreted by the local population as being underhand and undemocratic (especially if seen as British conspiracy!), and it is better to claim your candidature openly. If a candidate is elected against his/her will, they are able to submit their resignation.

A bill has recently been presented in the Senate which aims to stop this happening, by making it compulsory for every candidate to be formally registered as such, as in the bigger communes. There is very little chance that this bill will be passed, but details can be found here.

d) Choosing the mayor:

The mayor is elected by the other members of the council at its first meeting, which should technically be chaired by the oldest member of the newly elected council, though this is often ignored, especially if the outgoing maire has been re-elected. In communes of over 2500 inhabitants, the new maire will be the head of the winning list, but in communes of under 2500 inhabitants, where there is not necessarily a winning list, and where panachage is allowed, the outcome can be unexpected and it may take sevaral rounds of voting to reach a conclusion.

On the first two rounds, the maire is elected by absolute majority, but a relative majority is sufficient if there is a third round. The council then decides how many adjoints (deputies) to appoint, with responsibility for particular areas of policy: the number of deputies cannot exceed 30% of the total number of councillors. British residents cannot be either maires or adjoints.

e) The parity law:

In 2000, a law was introduced to encourage the representation of women in politics, with the aim of achieving ‘parity’ between men and women. In the 2001 municipal elections, lists in communes of over 3500 inhabitants had to contain equal numbers of male and female candidates, but they had to be grouped in clusters of 6, containing three of each in any order: this was to stop all the women being put at the bottom of this list! A more recent law passed in January 2007 stipulates that, the lists must be composed of alternating male and female candidates, rather than the previous clusters of 6, and the executive bodies of these councils must also respect the rules of gender parity. Neither law applies to communes of under 3500 inhabitants, where there is still a male domination in municipal councils, though some maires are tying to include more women in order to respect the spirit of this law.

f) Standing as a local councillor:

British residents living in very small communes who would like to stand for election, should start by talking to other local people in order to get a sense of what the situation is regarding the current maire: does he/she intend to stand again? Do you get on well with him/her? Might he/she be interested in having you on his/her list? Are there likely to be any attempts to dislodge him/her? Are you on better terms with ‘the opposition’ than the current maire? Are relations between people in your commune generally conflictual or consensual? What are the issues of contention and what are your own views on them? Assuming that your French is good enough to cope with council meetings, you should start showing interest in the elections and in council business generally: all citizens can sit in on the meetings of their own council, though with no right to speak.

Times and dates of council meetings will be pinned up on the board outside the mairie. Talk to other councillors to see what is involved: some councils have monthly meetings lasting up to three hours, while others only meet every three months for an hour or two.

If you are already known in the community and have reasonable French, you may well be asked if you will join a list, especially if you are a woman: even though the parity law does not affect small communes, many maires espouse its political objectives, and are trying to increase female representation. Many are also very European minded and will be trying to get EU residents involved in the council’s activities: it is not always easy to find sufficient competent people to fill all the council places in very small communes. In a general way, the best way to increase your chance of getting elected is to make yourself known in the local community, and let it be known that you would be interested in being a candidate, but without being too pushy. This is particularly important in areas with very high levels of British residents, where the local population might well be fearing a take-over by the perfidious Albion!

g) Elections cantonales:

Some communes will also be organising simultaneous elections for the Conseil Général (at the level of the département). Half of these councils are renewed every three years. One councillor is elected for each canton (a grouping of communes). This ballot is uninominal, ie. you vote for one candidate and their suppléant (stand in). There must be parity amongst candidates: if the main candidate is male, the suppléant must be female. The voting for the cantonale election should take place in a different place to the municipale: this could be a different room in the same building.

The counting of votes in small communes is a fascinating event in French politics and is highly recommended for anyone with even a limited interest in politics: everyone is allowed to go in to the mairie and watch as the lists are deciphered. If you think this explanation sounds complicated, you will understand it better once you have observed it.

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