Understanding the Municipal Elections in France

First: what is a Municipality?

In France a municipality is referred to as a « commune ». The French word commune appeared in the 12th century, from Medieval Latin « communia », meaning a large gathering of people sharing a common life; from Latin « communis », things held in common.
It consists of the municipal council and the executive which is the mayor and deputy mayor. The mayor, elected by the councillors, is solely responsible for the administration. But he can delegate some of his functions to one or more deputies. In Paris there is a council for the whole city and for each arrondissement. The term hôtel de ville designates the building which houses la mairie. The terme mairie designates the communal administration since the Révolution of 1789. In smaller towns mairie is used for both the building and the administration.

Who is elected in the Municipal Elections in France?

All French municipalities will elect their local councillors for 6 years all at the same time. Councillors are elected by direct universal suffrage by the French and European voters registered on the local electoral lists. Councillors will then elect the mayor and deputy mayors.

Voters in cities of over 1000 inhabitants vote for lists which are presented in a specific order, the candidate who wishes to be mayor organizes the list and heads it. The other members of the list will be possibly elected council members. Council seats are attributed by proportion to each list and the corresponding number of candidates become councillors. For example if a list wins 35% of the vote on a council with 40 members, then top 14 from the list sit on the council.  Only in a case of a complete landslide would every member of a list become a councillor.

Smaller communities essentially elect individuals and can vote across lists, those with the most votes win seats.

Municipal election turnout is usually about 60% making Municipal elections in France the election with the historically best turnout.

2020 Municipal Elections

  • Dates: 2 rounds March 15th and 22nd 2020. French elections always take place on Sunday. If no candidate or list gains an absolute majority (50 per cent) on the first day, a second round is held a week later.
  • For the first time in 2020 the first four arrondissements of Paris have been combined, called « Paris centre » and they will elect one mayor who will preside over the four regrouped arrondissements.
  • There are at least 12 candidates to choose from for the city of Paris.
  • Many mayoral candidates in France are not associating themselves with political parties this year reflecting the general disgust with politics and the great shift in political parties. Usually these elections are seen as a barometer of the federal power’s popularity, but not declaring party affiliation will make this analysis more opaque in 2020.
  • Many incumbant mayors are not seeking re-election. They say they are tired of being the scapegoats and fix-it people for all of France’s grievances. On one side their resources from the federal government are more and more limited and on the other side people come to them to constantly complain about things that have nothing to do with the mayor.


Who can vote in municipal elections?

-If you are over 18 and you are French, you can vote, provided that you are registered on the electoral list in your « commune ».
-If you are a citizen of the European Union and that you are over 18, you can vote, provided that you are registered on the supplementary electoral list of where you live in France.

Municipal elections in France

Pierre-alain dorange, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

A Parisienne goes to vote – How does it work?

First of all you have to go to your local polling station. Since elections generally take place over a one- or two-day span on a periodic basis, polling places are usually located in facilities used for other purposes, such as schools, churches, sports hall. For me it has always been in my old school which is quite a funny experience to go back there. No more lessons, now it’s time to get serious and vote! When you arrive you have to show your ID card and electoral card so they can give you the precious envelope and check that you are at the right polling place. You can find ballot slips for each candidate on the main table and you can pick all of them if you want to make sure no one can see who you are going to vote for. Some people just take one and then it’s pretty obvious who they are voting for! Then you go to the voting booth so you have privacy when you put your chosen ballot slip in the envelope. Once it is done you have to put your envelope in the ballot box. After signing, someone says your name outloud and someone else says « a voté! » (voted) completing the sentence and it is done! You can go back home and watch the results on TV later in the evening (and start a passionate debate about politics with your family – that’s how we do it in France!)

Fun Facts :

Municipal Elections in France

Smallest Town Hall in France

  • The first mayor of Paris, Jean Sylvain Bailly, was elected after the storming of the Bastille on 15 July 1789.
  • In case of a tie, the older candidate is elected.
  • -Paris is the only town to also be a department, the mayor of Paris is also the President of the General Council of the department.
  • André Cornu (Bazolles – Nièvre) is the mayor who had the longest term: 72 years! ! !
  • The smallest town hall in France is in Normandy, in the Eure department. It is called Saint-Germain de Pasquier, a charming little village of 139 inhabitants located in the heart of the valley of Oison.
  • There are 34979 communes in France! That’s a reduction from the last municipal elections from 36682 due to many fusions. Despite this shrinking figure 75% of French municipalities still have less than 1000 inhabitants and France still has 33% of the municipalities of Europe. There are even 6 communes with no inhabitants (these 6 communes were destroyed by the fighting in WWI and remain on the map and continue to have councils – named by the Prefet de la Meuse – in rememberance). There are also 22 communes with less than 10 inhabitants which is why you frequently hear of the entity « la commune des communes » as municipalities group together for certain services.
  • Mayors and council members wear a tricolor sash during official functions. The sash has gold tassels for the may or and silver for a deputy. The sash is always worn over the right should crossing to the left side or as a belt. For mayors the blue stripe is placed closest to the collar (or top of the belt), whereas deputies wear the red stripe near the collar.

Some useful vocabulary :

If you hear these words on TV now you will know what they mean!

scrutin : ballot
isoloir : voting booth
les bulletins : ballot slips
l’enveloppe : the envelope
l’urne : the ballot box
émarger : to sign to register
dépouillement : analysis, opening the envelopes and counting ballots
procès-verbal : official report
vote blanc : blank or protest vote (an empty envelope) which is not counted
vote nul : spoilt vote, uncounted (you must not write on the ballot slip!)