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Local elections as seen by the social sciences

Municipal election campaigns are key moments in the cycle of local politics. The authors of the series of articles presented here show that they also represent a fertile ground for the social sciences, revealing the ways in which local political systems operate and evolve. Following the French municipal elections of March 2014, the articles in this series offer an exploration in time and space – both geographical and social – of “municipal issues”.

Much has already been said and written about the latest French municipal elections, which took place in March 2014, and in particular regarding the results of these polls, which, far from delivering any conclusive “truths” about the election, inevitably remain the subject of interpretation, with a multitude of competing interests and social actors ready to “decipher” them and pronounce all sorts of “verdicts” (Lehingue 2005). Who “really” won ? Why did the losers lose ? Was it a “protest vote” against government policy or over local issues ? These are the kinds of questions that are omnipresent in the analyses and reactions in the immediate aftermath, but which will be absent from the articles in this series in Metropolitics. Instead, the authors of the papers featured here will show, each in their own way, that municipal elections can be a fertile ground for the social sciences, provided that we leave aside prognoses and the interpretation of results, and focus on what these elections highlight in terms of the ways in which local political spaces, and the organisations that operate within them, function and the transformations they have undergone.

Municipal election campaigns are key moments in the cycle of local politics – especially in France, where they occur just once every six (or occasionally seven) years. They crystallise and highlight certain divisions that ordinarily are latent or even suppressed (Kesselman 1972). In the 1970s, for example, researchers described the municipal election campaign in Dunkirk as a “volatile” (Castells and Godard 1974), as it brought to light links between “class interests and local political machines” in “Monopolville” (as they chose to nickname the town, although this moniker was less unique than it was emblematic of the broader dynamics of “monopolistic capitalism” that they were then trying to decipher).

While these analyses have since been criticised, mainly because they ignored local issues and approaches and concentrated instead on the macrostructures of capital and the state (Briquet and Sawicki 1989), it is regrettable that few studies have examined the role of interest groups (developers, large urban services groups, farmers’ unions, etc.) in any comparable way during subsequent municipal campaigns. [1] The difficulties inherent in gaining access to these stakeholders and the relative discretion of their negotiations are probably one the reasons for this situation. The other possible explanation, more paradoxical, is probably related to the development over the past 20 years or so of research that increasingly uses ethnography but at the same time tends to focus on exchanges between candidates and the people whose support they are trying to gain (door-to-door canvassing, meetings, etc.). Despite the undeniable benefits of this research (Lagroye et al. 2005), there is still a lack of studies similar to those conducted by Robert Dahl (Dahl 1991) in New Haven, Connecticut, or in another register, to the pioneering study by Jacques Lagroye on long-time mayor of Bordeaux Jacques Chaban-Delmas (Lagroye 1973), both of which provide information on the complex relationship between “society and politics”, and even more so between “good society” and politics.

Available research, which has increased since the 1980s, has nevertheless helped to highlight one of the major specificities of municipal elections, namely their relative autonomy vis-à-vis the national political field and the considerable entanglement that can result from competition for local power and other forms of local social competition. This is the thesis of the book Enjeux municipaux (Gaxie and Lehingue 1984), published 30 years ago and now a key reference for those interested in local elections, and more generally in the concepts associated with political representation. In an interview that picks up where this introductory text leaves off, Metropolitics looks back on the genesis of this work with one of its authors, as well as on its reception in the academic world and beyond. Although the study of municipal elections and local issues was relatively marginal and enjoyed little legitimacy in the world of social sciences at the time, it has today acquired a more prominent place, in particular following the development of regional research centres in France in the 1980s, as well as decentralisation reforms, which have helped to “ennoble” local politics and governance as an object of study.

As the 2014 municipal election cycle comes to an end, Metropolitics (and its French-language counterpart Métropolitiques) offers an overview of recent studies that address some of these “municipal issues” from different disciplinary perspectives (sociology, political science, history and geography), with a several articles located at the intersection of these perspectives. Multiple methodological approaches have thus been adopted, with certain articles favouring ethnographic studies, questionnaire-based surveys and/or interviews, archival explorations, statistical and cartographic analysis of spatial data, or indeed a combination of these. The elections themselves are sometimes central elements, sometimes secondary. Some articles were written well before the election, others several weeks afterwards. As is customary at Metropolitics, these short papers are also intended to act as an invitation to further explore the work of their authors.

This series seeks to examine municipal elections by varying the focus of analysis in terms of time (from past to present), in terms of political space (from left to right), and in terms of different geographical and political contexts and scales (from Paris to the provinces, from the rural to the urban, from town halls to political parties, and from municipal councils to intermunicipal bodies).

From past to present

The recognition of municipal power is part of a long history. Since 1884 in France, local councils have, through their deliberations, dealt with “municipal affairs”, embodied by the “likeable” and “untouchable” figure of the mayor (Bellanger 2014). Since the early 20th century, a key movement has been under way : the professionalisation of councils, reinforcing the political and ceremonial position of civic officers. This professionalisation has been accompanied by a homogenisation of councillors’ practices. As heirs to the trade union and cooperative movements, socialist councillors, studied here by Aude Chamouard, transformed their ideological framework into a negotiated form of municipal management. Their achievements, which stand out as an alternative to municipal conservatism and a model for elected officials who engage in ambitious community action programmes, are the result of compromises. Even communist municipalities, which in France now form an “archipelago” in decline (studied by Roger Martelli), have tended to adopt a pragmatic position that allows them to innovate in the field of social action while at the same time reinforcing their control over the territories they represent. Several contributions to this series show the exercise of mayoral functions can help foster cross-party support (or at least reduce divisions) and combine municipal experiences. For over a century, being mayor (or, more rarely, mayoress) – a role often combined with other elected positions in France – has become a true profession in its own right, especially when it exercised over several terms. Such mayoral longevity is a marker of elected officials’ institutional standing. It is, as Anne-Laure Ollivier points out in her paper, the main lever for the personalisation of municipal power, as exemplified by Gaston Defferre, the mayor of Marseille from 1953 to 1986. This tendency dates back much further than the adoption of decentralisation laws. It is symptomatic of the “notabilisation” of elected officials and the depoliticisation of municipal issues. According to Anne-Laure Ollivier, this responds to a “desire to embody the power entrusted to them by voters, favoured by the proximity of mayors to their electorate and the rise of more sophisticated public relations and image management – hence the paradox whereby personalisation is readily criticised but accepted and even desired by voters”.

From left to right

While local elections are governed by rationales that are relatively autonomous from the national political arena, national party organisations continue to be very involved in and committed to local polls, which can even be an opportunity to “realign” political parties, as shown by Julien Fretel in his article on the positioning and alliances of centrist party MODEM.

Why is this so ? First, because municipal mandates offer resources (material, symbolic and political) that are valuable for these organisations. A term as mayor of a large or medium-sized city, or as cabinet member in a big city, combined with other functions (in particular within intermunicipal bodies) allows political professionalisation. For national party notables, local mandates can also mask the vagaries of a national political career (as has been the case for Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, or Martine Aubry, mayor of Lille, for example, who have been able to continue their political careers thanks to their municipal positions ; or, more recently, François Bayrou, who became mayor of Pau in south-west France in the latest municipal elections after failing to be elected as a member of parliament and, more importantly, failing to establish MODEM as France’s third political party). Control of nominations (with, or despite, “primaries”, as Rémi Lefebvre shows in connection with the Socialist Party) allows parties to “hand out” positions in the absence of any national vacancies, and reward party careers or ensure successions. In France, municipal elections are by far the main providers of political mandates. With over 36,000 municipalities – ranging in size from tens of inhabitants to over 2 million in the case of Paris – there are now some 500,000 municipal councillors nationwide, although not all council seats grant access to the same responsibilities and resources.

And lastly, because municipal policies are viewed as potential national “showcases” for political parties, despite the trend (highlighted in many of the papers presented here) for less and less differentiation between the right and the left at local level following the decentralisation laws of the early 1980s). This tendency has resulted in the abandonment of experiments in “municipal socialism” or “municipal communism” and the development of public policies that are oriented towards “development”, “global reach” and “international competitiveness”. This is the assertion made by Gilles Pinson in his contribution, stressing that “everything happens as if local policies are there to serving the same neoliberal grand design”. David Gouard also highlights the ambiguity of the French Communist Party’s varied alliances that seek above all to preserve its network of local elected officials – alliances that “potentially undermine the coherence of a political project of national scope conducted under the banner of the Front de Gauche”. In the last “red towns”, “the resistance of these bastions of communism is based much more often on local political action, sometimes highly personalised, than on recognition of a particular party label”. This analysis is discussed by Paul Boulland in his review of David Gouard’s recent book La Banlieue rouge. Ceux qui restent et ce qui change (Gouard 2014). The gains made by the far-right Front National (FN) in the last elections, while modest in terms of the number of councils won, present an opportunity to observe how this “outsider” party mobilises and politicises its fiefdoms as springboards for national politics, or alternatively tries not to make waves by blending in with the very “consensual” world of local politics. Joël Gombin, in his article on Marseille, shows the keen impact that the question of the division of spoils between parties can have, at both municipal and intermunicipal level.

From Paris to the provinces

At the heart of the capital region, Philippe Subra analyses the results of municipal elections in the inner suburbs and their impact on the political projects for the nascent “Greater Paris metropolitan authority”. Largely overshadowed by the confrontation between Anne Hidalgo and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet for control of Paris City Council, the suburbs beyond the city’s tight limits experienced a memorable election battle. “The right has managed to capture several communist and socialist bastions, while the conquest strategy of Claude Bartolone in Seine-Saint-Denis [a département of generally less well-off inner-city areas] seems to have stalled, with the predictable consequence of shifting the political balance of the future Paris Metropolitan Authority to the right”. In Paris and the provinces alike, the administrative divisions that are supposed to impose “good governance” are never neutral ; they also reflect partisan conquest strategies that can end up turning against their proponents. However, even in cases where one political party tends to dominate a particular area, like the right-wing UMP on the Côte d’Azur (studied by Stéphane Cadiou), disputes and disagreements arise instead within the party itself, between its various currents and factions. Accordingly, the recent municipal elections were an opportunity for oppositions between supporters of Jean-Francois Copé and Francois Fillon to come to the fore – oppositions which make sense only in the context of local rivalries and positions, to which they give a veneer of ideological content.

Finally, in Western France, long associated with conservatism, the success of the left in national, regional and local elections since the late 1990s has not gone unnoticed by observers of political life. Romain Pasquier shows that while 2014’s municipal elections reflected a shift in this situation, with significant losses for François Hollande’s Socialist Party in towns of over 10,000 inhabitants, the left nevertheless managed to retain several major western cities (Nantes, Rennes, Le Mans, Brest), suggesting that municipal socialism is still showing signs of resistance in large urban areas, though the fall of Angers is the exception that proves the rule. Ultimately, and in order to avoid the slippery slope of culturalist or “genius loci”-based arguments specific to each region, it must be remembered that these political divisions reflect socio-economic and socio-historical configurations that have slowly crystallised in regional spaces over time. Moreover, these regional configurations are evolving as a result of the growing importance of urban contexts that are changing the geography of social inequalities.

From rural to urban

From rural areas to large cities, municipal elections reflect multiple social and political approaches, with population size determining the voting method and therefore the “rules of the game”. In the smallest villages, Sébastien Vignon highlights a reality far removed from the stereotypes of rural apoliticism and parochial bickering, pointing out that municipal elections are deeply embedded with social antagonisms, which are themselves indicative of local struggles between different groups of inhabitants. However, city-dwellers are not necessarily absent from the political scenes of these small settlements : Lucie Bargel shows that in certain communities, especially in tourist areas, some residents from nearby towns and cities are choosing to be registered on the electoral roll – and vote – in the locations of their second homes, for emotional and/or strategic reasons. In the metropolitan areas that polarise these rural and urban fringe areas, the use of analyses at the scale of individual polling stations has enabled Jean Rivière to reassert the primacy of an explanation for voting behaviour in terms of the geography of intra-urban inequalities, pointing to both commonalities between cities and local social singularities when it comes to electoral positions.

From municipal councils to intercommunalities

Talking about “metropolitan areas” necessarily leads to considerations of the different levels of local government that exist in France, which today are facts of political life in both urban and rural areas. Here, Thomas Frinault looks back on the “MAPAM” bill to modernise public action and establish metropolitan authorities, adopted in January 2014. By highlighting the contrasts between directly elected local authorities (municipalities, départements and regions) and indirectly elected bodies for intermunicipal cooperation (“intercommunalities”), he shows that the départements, likely to disappear in the relatively near future, have been under fire from two fronts : regional on the one hand, and metropolitan on the other. Existing research on this issue, however, has shown that reforms on intercommunalities over the last 15 years or so, as well as the “Chevènement law” of 1999 (simplifying intermunicipal cooperation), far from questioning the political centrality mayors, have instead helped reaffirm their role (often also as leaders of intercommunalities), at the expense of the rest of the city council and other instances of local democracy. On this point, the obligation to signal “intercommunal candidates” for the latest elections (by indicating on ballot papers which municipal councillors, if elected, would also serve on the intermunicipal authority) is more a cosmetic measure and a continuation of the existing situation than any real challenge to the accusation that control of intermunicipal bodies is “confiscated” by elected officials (Desage and Guéranger 2011), as Rémy Le Saut shows in his article.

Furthermore, has the exercise of municipal power today been “confiscated” by a minority ? Michel Koebel’s contribution provides answers to this important question by describing the ranking processes involved in the composition of town and city councils and the “social filtering” at play in determining the sociology of the municipal executive. It also shows that access to senior cabinet positions is subject to selectivity based on councillors’ gender, generation and, above all, social characteristics.

We hope that the contributions presented here go beyond the immediate aftermath of the elections, and help to gain a better understanding of the changing face – and immutable aspects – of local government in France. Three decades after the decentralisation laws of the early 1980s, it may be time to embark upon a critical inventory of these reforms that have transformed France and French democracy.

Articles in this series :

See also on Métropolitiques (in French) :

Spécificité ou uniformisation de l’action municipale : les leçons de l’histoire

  • “Un mal nécessaire ? La personnalisation du pouvoir municipal en France depuis 1945”, by Anne‑Laure Ollivier (forthcoming)
  • La gauche, la droite, les villes”, by Gilles Pinson

L’enjeu municipal dans les formations politiques

Enjeux municipaux, enjeux métropolitains et régionaux ?

Ce que l’urbanisation fait aux scrutins municipaux

Scrutins municipaux et réforme territoriale : la démocratie locale en question


  • Bellanger, Emmanuel. 2014. “Le maire au XXe siècle ou l’ascension d’une figure “sympathique” et “intouchable” de la République”, Pouvoirs, no. 148, pp. 15–29.
  • Briquet, Jean-Louis and Sawicki, Frédéric. 1989. “L’approche localisée du politique : lieux de recherche ou recherche de lieux ?”, Politix, no. 7–8, pp. 6–16.
  • Castells, Manuel and Godard, Francis. 1974. Monopolville. Analyse des rapports entre l’entreprise, l’État et l’urbain à partir d’une enquête sur la croissance industrielle et urbaine de la région de Dunkerque, Paris : Mouton.
  • Dahl, Robert. 1991. Qui gouverne ?, Paris : Armand Colin.
  • Desage, Fabien and Guéranger, David. 2011. La Politique confisquée. Sociologie des réformes et des institutions intercommunales, Bellecombe-en-Bauges : Éditions du Croquant.
  • Gaxie, Daniel and Lehingue, Patrick. 1984. Enjeux municipaux, la constitution des enjeux politiques dans une élection municipale, Paris : Presses universitaires de France – Centre universitaire de recherches administratives et politiques de Picardie (PUF–CURAPP).
  • Gouard, David. 2014. La Banlieue rouge. Ceux qui restent et ce qui change, Lormont : Le Bord de l’Eau.
  • Kesselman, Mark. 1972. Le Consensus ambigu. Étude sur le gouvernement local, Paris : Cujas.
  • Lagroye, Jacques. 1973. Société et Politique. Jacques Chaban-Delmas à Bordeaux, Paris : Pedone.
  • Lagroye, Jacques, Lehingue, Patrick and Sawicki, Frédéric (eds.). 2005. Mobilisations électorales. Le cas des élections municipales de 2001, Paris : PUF–CURAPP.
  • Lehingue, Patrick. 2005. “Mais qui a gagné ? Les mécanismes de production des verdicts électoraux (le cas des scrutins municipaux)”, in Lagroye, Jacques, Lehingue, Patrick and Sawicki, Frédéric (eds.), Mobilisations électorales. Le cas des élections municipales de 2001, Paris : PUF–CURAPP, p. 323‑360.

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Pour citer cet article :

Emmanuel Bellanger & Fabien Desage & Jean Rivière & traduit par Oliver Waine, “Local elections as seen by the social sciences”, Métropolitiques, 11 juin 2014. URL :

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