French Regional elections: With "proportional" system, the devil is in the details... ... but representation of women is boosted!

by Pauline Lejeune // Published April 27, 2010

On March 14th and 21st, French voters elected their 26 regional councils (Conseil régional in French), which are the local governments of each of France’s 26 regions. Used, since 2004, the voting system combines elements of winner-take-all elections and proportional representation, and gender quotas have resulted in a a remarkable growth in representation of women.

In France, regions do not have any legislative autonomy, but they manage significant budgets and have a certain freedom of administration as part of the decentralization process. Thus, the responsibilities of the elected regional councils cover a wide range of fields, such as high schools, apprenticeships, vocational training, regional public transport systems, economic development, employment and regional spatial planning.


The left, taking 54% of the vote at the national level, won control of 21 of the 22 regions in mainland, and of 23 of the 26 regions. The National Front, a far right party, also did well with 11.42% of the national vote in the first round. Those results, combined with the historically poor score of the Presidential majority, which is the coalition supporting Sarkozy and his government (27% in the first round, 35.4% in the second round), constituted a major electoral setback for President Sarkozy. In addition, the turnout dropped to a historic low, barely reaching 46% in the first round and 51% in the second round.


A main point of interest, beyond the results, is how the number of seats won by parties, at a regional and national level, does not mirror the electorate. For instance, nationwide, the left received 68% of the seats with 54% of the vote and the Presidential Majority won 29.7% of the seats with 35.4% of the vote. Indeed, the semi-proportional system used for the regional elections distorts the electoral dynamics. This is why you want to take a closer look at it.

Critics considered that the closed-list system of proportional representation (PR) used before 2004 enabled third parties such as the National Front to be kingmakers. Since the 2004 elections, a majority rule has been added to the regional party-list system to ensure more efficient governance. Consequently, in each region, the list that receives the most votes (either a majority in the first round, or a plurality in the second round) automatically wins 25% of the seats, as a bonus. And in the case of a runoff, because no list won a majority in the first round, only the lists that won at least 10% of the votes in the first round are allowed to compete. As to the three other quarters of the seats, they are proportionally allocated between the parties that were part of the final round, according to their fair share of the vote. As a result, the party winning the most votes is likely to secure a majority in the regional council.

However, despite three quarters of the seats being allocated proportionally, the system does not provide voters with fair representation. The bonus given to the list with the most votes, and the threshold to be part of the runoff, significantly skew the process in each region, favoring major parties and providing voters with a representation that does not match reality: the left won 14% more seats nationwide than they should have according to their share of the vote and the Center party hardly got any representation at all (0.58% of the seats nationwide), despite winning 4% of the vote in the first round.


Another main point of interest of those elections, more encouraging, is women’s representation. The electoral law, since 2004, requires each regional party list to alternate genders to achieve equal representation of men and women in the elected regional councils. As a result, nationwide, 48% of the members elected in 2010 are now women, when women were only 27.5% of the members in 1998.

The electoral law also requires the regional governments elected by the regional councils to be equally composed from men and women. As a result, women now constitute 48% of the regional governments nationwide and 11 regional governments are made up of at least 50% women. Only two regions (Martinique and Guyane, which are not in mainland) fail to meet their obligations, with only 41.67% and 44.44% of women in their regional government. 

Women’s representation still can be improved though, as to the region’s presidency: only two regions have elected a woman as their president, one of them being Ségolène Royal, who ran for president in 2007.


Usually elected for six years, the members of the regional councils elected last month have a four-year mandate, as part of a reform of the local government. Efforts to merge different levels of local governments have led to devising a new electoral system: 80% of the members of the local governments would be elected through a first-past-the-post system and the last 20% through PR. This proposed electoral system is definitely a step in the wrong direction: equal representation of women and men won’t be guaranteed anymore, and smaller parties will hardly get represented at the local level. Instead, it would make more sense to keep more list seats, and, for the district seats, to consider instant-runoff-voting, where voters have a real chance to express their preference.