Record absention predictedfor French regional elections

19th March 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 19 (AFP) - French regional elections which take place over two Sundays from March 21 are a complex procedure for assemblies that remain poorly understood and command little loyalty, and experts say abstention could hit record levels.

PARIS, March 19 (AFP) - French regional elections which take place over two Sundays from March 21 are a complex procedure for assemblies that remain poorly understood and command little loyalty, and experts say abstention could hit record levels.

In the last surveys before campaigning ends Saturday, between 55 and 65 percent of the public said they were uninterested in the vote, raising the possibility that half or more of the electorate will not bother to go to the polls.

A low turn-out would confirm a trend going back several years - a crisis of confidence in the democratic system attributed to growing public mistrust of French politicians and resignation in the face of an increasingly complex world.

"Gloom and fatalism still seem to dominate France's political debate, handicapping its main players and stifling the issues that count," said commentator Herve Gattegno in Le Monde newspaper.

French voting figures have been in decline for at least a decade. In regional elections in 1998 the abstention rate was 42 percent and in European elections the following year it was 53 percent. Turn-out for a 2000 referendum on shortening the presidential mandate was as low as 30 percent.

The 2002 presidential race saw 28.4 percent failing to vote - a record for what is generally a popular democratic moment. The low turn-out was a decisive factor in the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's first round victory over the Socialist Lionel Jospin.

Nearly 40 percent failed to vote in round two of that year's parliamentary election.

Interest in this month's elections is impeded by a changed voting system as well as by the relative unimportance attached by the public to the country's 22 metropolitan regional assemblies. Most of these reflect no natural community of identity, and their powers are strictly limited.

After modifications introduced by the centre-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the 1880 regional councillors are elected to 26 assemblies - including four in France's overseas territories - over a two-round election.

Lists which acquire 10 percent of votes cast Sunday qualify for the run-off on March 28. This will mean in many cases triangular contests between the mainstream right and left and the far-right National Front (FN), with the possibility of some four-way fights caused by the far-left also getting through.

Seats are then divided proportionately among parties that win at least five percent, with a quarter going as a bonus to the party that comes first. This is to prevent horse-trading, which in 1998 - when the centre-right relied on FN votes to secure majorities in several assemblies - proved highly embarrassing.

Introduced in 1982 as part of a decentralisation programme by the Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, the regions have limited powers over high schools, culture, professional training and the environment. These are to be slightly increased under new reforms.

However the impact of regional assemblies on local life is small and they attract little loyalty. The powers and budgets of regions in Spain and Germany are enormous by comparison.

French voters will also be choosing some 2,000 members of "general councils," assemblies in the country's 100 departments or counties.

Ironically, though these receive far less publicity in the Paris-based media, they reflect more genuine local allegiances than the regions and also have greater powers and more money.

© AFP

                                                              Subject: France news

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