Category Archives: Regional analysis

50 years ago: the Évian Accords

50 years ago, the signature of the Évian Accords on March 19, 1962 signaled the end of the Algerian war and led to the independence of Algeria on July 5, 1962. In the Gaullist tradition of popular sovereignty, voters in metropolitan France were to ratify the accords in a hastily-organized referendum on April 8 while voters in Algeria – including, on paper, French citizens of Algeria – were to formally decide on their independence in a referendum on July 1. French voters on April 8 ratified the terms of the Évian Accords with 90.8% support and only 25% abstention. In Algeria, the result was an even bigger blowout: 99.7% voted in favour of Algerian independence, which was recognized by France on July 3 and proclaimed officially on July 5.

Already in January 1961, Charles de Gaulle had received popular approval through referendum of a rather vague program concerning self-determination in Algeria. de Gaulle had already privately decided that the sole solution to the Algerian crisis was Algerian independence, a fact which he recognized as early as 1959/1960. In reality, de Gaulle had never cared much for Algeria and his Algerian policy was first and foremost pragmatic. Following the 1961 referendum on self-determination, the French government and the Algerian nationalists (the GPRA and FLN) began talks in Évian, which broke down before re-opening in 1962.

The two main blockage points between the French government and the GPRA were the rights of Europeans residing in Algeria and the control of newly-discovered petroleum resources in the Sahara. France wanted some sort of “guarantees” concerning the rights of the European (white) residents of Algeria – the pieds-noirs, a population numbering about a million people and 10% of Algeria’s population. Similarly, French strategic interests were concerned about the control of French military bases (used for nuclear testing) and the ownership of the Sahara’s black gold. In the end, the Évian Accords (on paper) set out rights guarantees for the Pieds-Noirs during a three year period, while also allowing France to continue secret uses of its military bases for nuclear testing for 15 years and advantages in the control of the Sahara’s oil resources. Following Algerian independence, rights guarantees for European residents in Algeria were quickly forgotten: on the very day of Algeria’s independence, hundreds of French civilians were massacred in Oran.

The Évian Accords included a cease-fire and the organization of a self-determination referendum in Algeria in a three-month window to be held a minimum of three months after the signature of the treaty. In the period between the signature of the Évian Accords and the self-determination referendum, France retained sovereignty over Algeria through an interim executive and high commissioner representing France.

The opponents of Algerian independence, the so-called ultras who had formed the underground Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) in 1961 which staged terrorist attacks with the aim of preventing Algerian independence. Following the Évian Accords, the OAS’ last hope was to prevent the timely organization of the self-determination referendum in Algeria. A mix of bombings, terrorist attacks and sniper shootings by the OAS with the aim of harassing the FLN into breaking the cease-fire and destroying the accords made the period between March and June 1962 one of the bloodiest periods in the war’s history. However, the OAS leader, General Raoul Salan was captured in April 1962 and the OAS compelled to a cease-fire in June.

The OAS or the cause of l’Algérie française never found a strong base of support with the metropolitan French population, which was in large majority exhausted of the bloody conflict and which harboured no sympathies for people they judged to be reactionary colonialists who were keeping them hostage in a futile conflict. However, the OAS and their cause had much more institutional support than popular support. A good number of government deputies from the UNR and the ‘moderates’ (CNIP) were favourable to l’Algérie française. Charles de Gaulle’s own Prime Minister, Michel Debré, was a not-so-secret opponent of Algerian independence. The OAS had received the backing of former UNR cabinet minister Jacques Soustelle and former MRP Prime Minister Georges Bidault amongst others. In November 1961, 80 deputies had voted in favour of the so-called amendement Valentin, which was widely interpreted as being dictated by Salan and the OAS. The ’80’ included CNIP deputy Jean-Marie Le Pen, Compiègne mayor Jean Legendre, ex-SFIO deputy Léon Delbecque, Perpignan mayor Paul Alduy, Pascal Arrighi, former Prime Ministers André Marie and Georges Bidault, and Tours mayor Jean Royer.

50 years ago: the Évian Accords referendum

On April 8, voters in metropolitan France ratified by a huge 9-to-1 majority the contents of the Évian Accords. The referendum was hastily organized, in part to prevent the organization of serious opposition, and the rules set up to keep French citizens in Algeria – constitutionally eligible to vote – from voting in the referendum. Nearly 17.9 million voters voted in favour of ratifying the accords, with only 1.8 million voting against. 24.6% of registered voters abstained while 4% (1.1 million) cast white or null votes.

In the 1961 self-determination referendum, opposition to the government’s vague Algerian agenda reached 25% – but largely because the French Communist Party (PCF), hostile to the government but a supporter of Algerian independence, had instructed its supporters to vote against. However, in April 1962, all political parties – the Gaullist UNR, the Socialists, the PCF, the MRP and the Radicals – supported a favourable vote. The CNIP gave no indication, while the left-wing PSU called in favour of a white vote (hence the high number of such ballots). The only source of opposition was to be the far-right, the nationalist sectors which had sympathy for the OAS and remained loyal to the cause of French Algeria.

The overwhelming victory of the yes vote on April 8 (91% of valid votes) represented two or three things. Firstly, and most importantly, a profound desire for peace and tranquility after years of war and recent terrorist attacks. In metropolitan France, by 1962, the war was no longer seen as being about upholding the French nation in Algeria and defending the French empire, but rather as a bloody futile conflict which stole the lives of countless young men from villages and small towns a across France. The pieds-noirs were not seen as the vanguards of empire, but rather as reactionary colonialists who had held the country hostage with their terrorist actions. Secondly, especially for Gaullist voters, support for Charles de Gaulle. In 1962, his support far surpassed that of the Gaullist party, the UNR, as his success in the face of cohesive left-right opposition in the November 1962 referendum proved.

Following Algerian independence, the pied-noir exodus to France was 10 times bigger than what the government had predicted. Official predictions believed that some 300,000 or so would move back to France but that the rest would opt to stay in Algeria. Over a million moved to France, only a handful remaining in independent Algeria. The massive exodus created a housing crisis in the regions where they settled (PACA, Languedoc-Roussillon, Midi-Pyrénées, Aquitaine, Corse) and the rapatriés often faced discrimination or exclusion once they arrived. The communist left was particularly violent, but they were generally perceived by most as being backwards, racist, violent, less educated colonialists who had exploited the Algerian indigenous population.


Percent voting against the Évian Accords, as a percentage of valid votes (own map)

Let us stop for a moment on the 1962 referendum, in order to analyse who voted against the Évian Accords now that we know why people voted in favour. The map to the right shows the percentage of no votes by department in the Évian referendum.

The bulk of opposition was concentrated along a sort of line stretching from Bordeaux to the Italian border in the Alpes-Maritimes, following the Garonne valley and the Mediterranean coast in Provence. Opposition was highest in the Gironde department (14.4%), Tarn-et-Garonne (14.3%) and in Paris (14%). Other sizable opposition was found in the Lot-et-Garonne (13.3%), Gers (13.8%), Haute-Garonne (12.7%), Tarn (12.3%), Hérault (11.8%), Bouches-du-Rhône (13.4%), Vaucluse (13.8%), Var (13.1%), Alpes-Maritimes (13.4%) and Corse (12.1%). The only departments with similarly high opposition lying outside this region were the Indre-et-Loire (12.2%), Indre (11.9%) and Seine-et-Marne (11.9%).

The pattern of opposition to Évian in the south of France, following the Garonne valley and Mediterranean coast, resembles the pattern of support for 1965 far-right candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour who won his best results in this region. The reason is, of course, fairly simple: these were the regions which attracted the most pieds-noirs who settled along the coast or in urbanized areas (Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille, Toulon, Orange, Lyon). The Pyrénées-Orientales also received a large pied-noir population, though apparently post-exodus since opposition to Évian was only 8.5% in 1962. Lyon (Rhône) and the high-growth inner suburbs (and new towns) in the Paris outskirts also received a large pied-noir population.

The 1962 referendum was held prior to the mass exodus, but a smaller share of pieds-noirs had already moved to France from Algeria since 1961 and there were, in addition, European settlers from Tunisia and Morocco who moved to France following the independence of both of these countries. It is of course hard to quantify the percentage of the population of each department which was of North African ‘ancestry’, especially in 1962.

Why the pieds-noirs voted against Évian does not merit a detailed explanation. There was a deep, profound sentiment in the pied-noir population which still endures to this day that they were ‘betrayed’ by the French government, especially by the ‘traitor’ Charles de Gaulle who had exclaimed, in 1958, vive l’Algérie française! Évian and the exodus turned the pied-noir community into an irremediably anti-Gaullist electorate. In 1965, Tixier-Vignancour had endorsed François Mitterrand over Charles de Gaulle in the runoff. Jacques Soustelle backed Jean Lecanuet in 1965 and Alain Poher in 1969. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was the favourite of the traditional far-right in 1974, especially over Jacques Chaban-Delmas.

The pied-noir explanation alone is a large part of the explanation, but pre-exodus it cannot account for a million voters and 9% of valid votes. Understandably given the low academic interest for the results of this plebiscite, there has been little if anything of note written about the results of the referendum and the electorates touched by the no vote. The following explanations take the form of assumptions and theories, which are not backed up by much academic literature but only by personal interpretations.

Paris placed third in terms of highest no votes, which is the first sign that the pied-noir explanation cannot explain it all away. Paris probably did not receive many pied-noir settlers, especially prior to July 1962. It is unfortunate that we do not have results down to the constituency level for this election, but the 1965 presidential election – specifically Tixier-Vignancour’s support – may give us indications about 1962. In 1965, Tixier-Vignancour’s support in Paris had been heavily concentrated in the most bourgeois upper-class neighborhoods on the west side of the city. He took over 8% of the vote in the very affluent 8th and 16th arrondissements, and over 7% in the equally bourgeois 7th and 17th arrondissements. Prior to the appearance of the FN in 1984 (and even then…) the far-right’s base in Paris had been with a comfortable, very affluent, traditional upper-class segment of society which had certain aristocratic roots and harboured sympathies for traditionalist causes such as that of the Action française. It is likely that the cause of French Algeria found some supporters in the Parisian upper bourgeoisie, expressed through a surprisingly large vote against Évian.

This 60s-70s phenomenon of far-right inclination amongst the upper middle-classes and the traditional bourgeoisie was largely a Parisian thing, but it also found expression in other large urban areas, including Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Rouen, Le Havre or Lille. As in 1984, Tixier-Vignancour tended to perform better in the more right-leaning affluent neighborhoods of large urban areas than the more left-wing working-class areas. This was not a particularly solid base for the far-right, in fact it only appeared in large numbers in 1965 and 1962. There existed some kind of natural bridge between far-right sympathies, sometimes expressed electorally, and traditional support for the ‘moderates’ (CNIP). The CNIP had a similar appeal to these types of voters, which harboured conservative views on matters such as French Algeria among other things. It is quite possible that in some larger urban areas, such as Paris or Lyon, some ‘moderate’ voters opted for a negative vote on Évian through support or understanding of the OAS and the nationalist cause of French Algeria.

There was an interesting outcrop of opposition in the Touraine – particularly in Indre-et-Loire (12.2%), Indre (11.9%) and Loir-et-Cher (11.5%). There is not much record of a large pied-noir population in this region, and besides Tours there are not many large urban areas with a large bourgeois electorate. Poujadism had done well in some of this region and in 1965, Tixier’s map revealed a similar outcrop of support in these departments. In this region, especially Tours and Indre-et-Loire, the French Algeria inclinations of conservative icon and Tours mayor Jean Royer (DVD) had some impact in stimulating a larger no vote. Boosted by Royer’s traditionalist influences, the local petite bourgeoisie and traditional middle-classes might have been inclined towards a no vote. A similar explanation might work for the Oise (11.5% no), where Compiègne mayor Jean Legendre (CNIP) had voted in favour of the ‘OAS amendment’. In the Côte-d’Or (11.1% no), perhaps the influence of viscerally anti-FLN CNIP Senator Roger Duchet and of the fairly conservative Dijon mayor Félix Kir (who had called for abstention himself) played a role in the department’s above-average opposition to Évian. In all these cases, the no vote was more the result of conservative ‘moderate’ (CNIP) voters with far-right inclinations than of any pied-noir vote.

Opposition to Évian was quasi-null in Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne, the Nord, Brittany, parts of Maine and Savoie. All of these regions were more or less solidly Gaullist regions, most of them (especially Alsace or Brittany) inherited from the MRP. The Catholic departments come out pretty clearly on the map (the southern Massif Central also had very little no votes) as total dead zones for opponents of Algerian independence. Did faith have a role to play with opposition to the war, or was it Gaullism or perhaps a general isolation from the war activities? Being distant or isolated from the war theaters and the terrorist actions of the OAS perhaps solidified or intensified opposition to war which by the time of the Évian referendum had a very bad name in metropolitan France. Alsace and Lorraine are certainly not devoid of nationalist sentiments, past or present, but eastern France’s nationalism has historically tended to be driven by opposition to Germany than any imperialist or colonialist ambitions or sentiments.

50 years later: A Pied-Noir vote?

50 years after the independence of Algeria and the pied-noir exodus, how large is the “the pied-noir electorate” and what is its electoral impact? The traditional view is that the pied-noir community has retained a strong bias in favour of the far-right and hostility towards Gaullism and skepticism towards the left. This view is not too bad as far as generalizations go. It is often assumed that the FN’s strong support in PACA and Languedoc-Roussillon can be explained away, almost entirely, with the the large presence of the pied-noir electorate in these regions.

In January 2012, the CEVIPOF in collaboration with the pollster IFOP published a short analysisof the pied-noir vote 50 years later as part of a wider series of “sociological electorates”. According to the IFOP’s research, the pied-noir community proper would number around 1.2 million voters (2.7% of registered voters) but could be expanded to as large as 3.2 million voters (7.3% of voters) using a more liberal definition to include those who have a pied-noir parent or grandparent. The weight of the pied-noir community was found to be greater, logically, in Languedoc-Roussillon (15.3%), PACA (13.7%) Midi-Pyrénées (11.2%) and Aquitaine (9.6%). We can safely conclude that while the pied-noir electorate in these regions does likely play a role in strengthening the far-right, it is only one factor with many others which explain the far-right’s above-average support in these regions.

IFOP’s research also included a survey of the voting intentions of pied-noir looking ahead to next month’s presidential election. According to the study, the pied-noir vote in 2007 had favoured Nicolas Sarkozy with 31% against 20.5% for Ségolène Royal – an average vote for the right, a below average vote for the left – but Jean-Marie Le Pen, with 18%, had performed 8 points better than he did with the entire electorate. François Bayrou, on the other hand, did about 11 points worse with the pied-noir electorate (7%). In 2002, the study notes that about three out of ten pieds-noirs had voted for one of the two far-right contenders. In the perspective of 2012, the survey (conducted in October 2011 and based on a national sample of 29% for Hollande, 22.5% for Sarkozy, 19.5% for Le Pen and 15.5% for all centrist candidates) showed that Marine Le Pen led voting intentions with pied-noir voters with 28% against 26% apiece for Hollande and Sarkozy, with only 9% support for centrist candidates. Voters of pied-noir ancestry would opt for Hollande with 31% against 24% for Marine and 15% for Sarkozy.

The pied-noir vote is thus not homogeneously biased in the FN’s favour either. Further demographic studies of far-right support among pieds-noirs voters, broken down by age and social class, would prove even more interesting. Still, a sizable portion of the pied-noir demographic retains a tradition of far-right support. It is likely strongest with those who have not “moved on” entirely and still remain active in association or clubs for ex-French settlers in Algeria. The demands of these clubs and associations include the official recognition by the French government that it was responsible for abandoning them in the summer of 1962 (particularly the Oran massacres, which pieds-noirs claim de Gaulle’s government turned a blind eye to) and some sort of financial compensation for the loss of their property in Algeria in 1962. There is still resentment towards de Gaulle and hostility towards the FLN and Algerian government(s). Similarly, the harkis (Muslim Algerian supporters of France during the conflict) usually demand official recognition by the state that they were “abandoned” to be massacred in summer 1962. In 2007, Sarkozy had talked about compensation and a memorial law recognizing the state’s role in the ‘betrayal’ of the pieds-noirs and harkis. None of that has happened yet.

Unlike in the United States where it is easy to identify ‘symbol’ communities for various ethnicities or ancestries (such as Hialeah for Cuban-Americans), the lack of ethnic or ancestral statistics in France makes such analyses much more difficult. In a search for a ‘pied-noir symbol community’, the best possible ‘symbol community’ appears to be the small Marseille suburban town of Carnoux-en-Provence (canton of Aubagne-Est). A recent Le Monde human-interest article on the town estimates that about 60% of the town’s 7000 or so inhabitants are pieds-noirs. Its demographic profile is somewhat reflective of the general pied-noir community: middle-class and aging (27% of the town is made up of retirees). The table below summarizes recent election results in Carnoux-en-Provence:

Main elections in Carnoux-en-Provence since 1995

P-1995 (runoff) P-2002 (runoff) L-2002 (runoff) R-2004 (runoff) P-2007 (runoff) L-2007 R-2010 (runoff) C-2011 (runoff)
Left+EXG 25.3% (29.1%) 29.4% 23.3% 31.1% (32.4%) 23.1% (28.3%) 17.6% 31.2% (30.3%) 23.9%
Centre Balladur 21.7% 8.7% 14.8% 7.8% 5.1% 5.2%
Right 26.9%
29% (66%) 49.4% (70.6%) 35.8% (41.7%) 45.9% (71.7%) 64.3% 33.2% (41.5%) 30.6% (48.5%)
Far-Right 26% 33% (34%) 26% (29.4%) 33% (26%) 16.4% 10.1% 30.6% (28.2%) 40.3% (51.5%)

If we treat our ‘symbol community’ as a fair representation of pieds-noirs in France, which it perhaps isn’t but which seems like an accurate representation, we can form some basic observations:

For the left, remarkable stability at low levels of support, which are not even broken by ‘red waves’ such as the 2004 and 2010 regional elections. Pieds-noirs might have opted for Mitterrand over the “traitor” in 1965, but the left has never been the first choice for most pieds-noirs. Around the time of the exodus, the Socialist mayor of Marseille, Gaston Defferre had, in not so polite terms, suggested that they go “readapt elsewhere”. The PCF, which favoured Algerian independence before anybody else, was long hostile towards the pieds-noirs. Unsurprisingly, the PCF, which held Carnoux’s constituency until 1999, always performed well below average in Carnoux.

For the centre, save for the exceptional “not-so-centrist” Balladurian vote in 1995 and Bayrou’s “not-so-centrist” electorate in 2007, a general absence from the electoral game. The post-UDF centre, which we can call a “humanist Christian centre-right”, has never appealed to pieds-noirs. The Giscardian RI had some support with pieds-noirs on the back of anti-Gaullism, but Bayrou’s MRP-CDS tradition has never had a natural base with the pied-noir electorate.

The right has tended to be the main rival to the far-right. Against the far-right, it can garner the support of the bulk of the first round left and centre; against the left, it can take the bulk of the far-right’s first round support (not much gaucho-lepenisme for the pieds-noirs). Chirac performed decently in Carnoux in 1995 and 2002 (in the first rounds), but Nicolas Sarkozy (43.4%) clearly took a significant amount of support from Le Pen in 2007. This is not unsurprising, given that mixed with Sarkozy’s appeal to pieds-noirs specifically he generally picked up the most FN votes in those areas, like Carnoux, where the FN vote is predominantly right-wing and fairly middle-class petit bourgeois. In the 2010 regional elections, the UMP’s resistance was surprisingly strong. Perhaps there was a small ‘boost’ for Thierry Mariani, the UMP’s top candidate in PACA, who has been vocal on the issue of recognition and memorial laws for pieds-noirs. In legislative elections, both in 2002 and 2007, the right usually performs very strongly. There is likely considerable cross-over support from Le Pen voters to the constituency’s right-wing deputy since 1999, Bernard Desflesselles (UMP).

The far-right has been very strong in Carnoux. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen won 34% in the runoff (only 18% nationally). Even more spectacular was 2011, when the FN’s candidate took 51.5% of the votes in Carnoux (40.1% in the canton) in a two-way runoff against the incumbent NC general councillor. There might have been some first-round left-wing voters who voted against Sarkozy by voting FN in the runoff. Save for 2007 and 2011, the FN’s general range has been between 25% and 30%. In 2007, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as pointed out above, clearly lost many of his 2002 supporters to Sarkozy and lost more to abstention and the UMP in the subsequent legislative elections.

The 2012 elections will prove interesting in the pied-noir community, and in Carnoux-en-Provence. 50 years later, the impact of France’s last colonial conflict still rears its head electorally.


Political Profile: Vendée

In the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections of April-June 2012, this blog will look at some of the most interesting departments, profiling their political preferences, past and present. The second department to be profiled is the Vendée.

The name Vendée is due to mean something to almost all students of French history and society. In history, the name Vendée is intricately connected with the counter-revolutionary conservative, monarchist and clerical chouannerie (1794-1800). To contemporaries, the Vendée can evoke the image of a backwoods rural, mystical and very conservative bulwark. The man which has represented the Vendée in the French political arena, Philippe de Villiers, has conformed to this stereotype and broad image of his department. Once again, the reality is not that simple. The Vendée is not a cohesive bloc and the nature of its conservatism is often misunderstood or misinterpreted.


Geographic map of the Vendée (source: CG85)

Traditionally, the Vendée can be divided into three broad regions. Entering the Vendée from the Charentes, one meets the marais poitevin, a large area of marshland which covers the far south of the Vendée (Luçon, Chaillé-les-Marais), northern Charente-Maritime (Marans) and parts of the Deux-Sèvres (Niort). The area in its two thirds is now composed of dried marsh largely used for agriculture, while a third of the marsh remains a wet marsh noted for its canals and maze of islets.

Moving further north, one enters the plaine poitevine (or plaine vendéene), often referred to simply as ‘the plain’. The plaine is an exceptionally flat openfield region, devoid of trees and hedges. The cereal and wheat plains of the plaine resemble those of the Beauce in Eure-et-Loir more than they do their immediate neighbor to the north.

The two-thirds of the Vendée are covered by le bocage vendéen, which is the department’s most well-known region and the region from which the political and social stereotypes stem from. More hilly, but not mountainous (the highest peaks are roughly 290m), the bocage’s landscape is famous for its mystical maze of fields divided by hedges and isolated from main roads. André Siegfried described the bocage as a rugged, charming landscape breaking the monotonous plains, a mysterious region of trees, high edges and hidden lanes hiding houses and farms. In another stark contrast to the cereal fields of the plain, the bocage is largely a land of breeding and grazing (élevage) of granivorous and herbivorous animals.

The bocage can be treated be as a homogeneous ensemble for our non-geographic purposes, but it is still worthwhile to point out its two main regions and the non-bocage islands within the northern two-thirds of the Vendée. The bocage is subdivided into the more hilly and even more mystical haut bocage in northeastern Vendée (Montaigu, Les Herbiers, Mortagne) and the flatter bas bocage. The bocage does not cover the entirety of the department.

In the northwest confines of the department on the border with Loire-Atlantique, the marais breton, which is Breton in name only, is a dried marshland similar to the marais poitevin. The island of Noirmoutier, whose landscape resembles that of the plain, is often attached to this region. A smaller marshland exists around Les Sables-d’Olonne. Around Chantonnay, surrounded by the bocage on all sides, the flatter and fairly tree-less fields of the plains can be found at a smaller scale, forming what can be called the limestone island of Chantonnay.

Limestone because these three geographic regions form three geological regions. The marais poitevin is a quaternary region (terrain quarternaire), the plains a jurassic limestone (calcaire) while the bocage forms the southern reaches of the much wider Armorican Massif (massif armoricain), which covers all of Brittany and most of the inner inland west. The massif armoricain‘s dominant rock is granite, as opposed to the limestone of the plains. The border between the plain and bocage is often defined as part of the boundary between western France and the rest of France.

Two other regions can be added to our overview of the Vendée’s geography in a political context: the coast and the region of La-Roche-sur-Yon. The coastal region forms a fairly cohesive bloc nowadays, and politically it is important to differentiate it from both the bocage and the plains-marshland. A region of sand dunes and sunny beaches, the Vendéan coast is nicknamed the ‘Côte de Lumière’. The island of Noirmoutier but also L’Île-d’Yeu, 25km off the coast, are often included in the coastal region. Finally, in a day and age where true rural areas are few and far between, it is important to differentiate the Vendée’s political capital, La-Roche-sur-Yon from its neighbors in the bocage. An artificial city built from scratch by Napoléon, its political impact has been fairly minimal in the past, but for our purposes, we must insist on the place of the city but also its suburban belt, which forms a circle all around it, extending south to the border with the plains, north to the confines of the departments and east to Les Essarts.

Political Representation and Institutions

The Vendée has been represented by five deputies since 1986, and its constituencies were not altered by the Marleix redistricting of 2009, meaning that the Vendée will continue to use the Pasqua redistricting of 1986. The Vendée has been redistricted only thrice since Napoleon III was defeated at Sedan: in 1875, in 1958 and in 1986! Between 1875 and 1958, the Vendée returned six deputies (two deputies apiece from the three arrondissements of La Roche, Les Sables and Fontenay-le-Comte) but this fell to only four deputies between 1958 and 1986.

The Vendée’s constituencies in terms of their coherency and homogeneity are a mix of good and bad. Charles Pasqua drew up a coherent coastal constituency (the third constituency) which the two insular cantons and the coast as far south as Les Sables. The coast, as mentioned above, forms a cohesive political and economic bloc and splitting the coast into two or more constituencies would hardly have made sense. That was the way it was in 1958 as well. Of course, from the right’s perspective, keeping the coast together was not something which was tough to do: it was politically advantageous to build such a constituency. In the northeast, the fourth constituency, is also fairly coherent, centered in the haut bocage and its surroundings.

Similar comments can more hardly be made, however, for the first and second constituencies. In the purest French tradition, and remiscient of Saskatoon and Regina in Canada, the current map splits the city of La-Roche-sur-Yon’s two overpopulated cantons into two different constituencies. The northern canton joins Challans, Les Essarts, Palluau, Le Poiré-sur-Vie and Rocheservière while the south joins Chantonnay, Mareuil-sur-Lay-Dissais, La Mothe-Achard, Moutiers-les-Mauxfaits and Talmont-Saint-Hilaire. Splitting these cities is not indispensable; a more coherent constituency, both socially and economically, could be created by reuniting the city and adjoining suburban cantons to such a seat. It could end up a bit oversized, but that’s largely because the two urban cantons are oversized. Of course, a coherent urban constituency both in 1986 and 2009 would have run contrary to the right’s political desires.

The Vendée has returned a delegation dominated entirely by the right in every legislative election since 1993. The Vendée has three senators, who were last elected in 2004. The Vendée has never elected a PS Senator in its history and all three senate seats are held by the right.

The Vendée’s general council has 31 members, renewed by halves every four years up till this point. The right has governed the general council with an overwhelming majority since the Liberation, and while it has been governed by republicans, the Vendée’s general council – as far as I am aware – has never been led by the left. The right currently holds 26 seats to the left’s 5 seats, which is roughly where the left’s ceiling has stood since the 1990s. The general council is overwhelmingly dominated by divers droite members (DVD), right-wing independents, largely rural-based, who hold 19 seats against only 1 for the UMP and 4 for the MPF. The president of the general council since 2010 is Senator Bruno Retailleau (DVD).

The Vendée’s 31 cantons exhibit an acute case of malapportionment. La Roche-sur-Yon is divided into two cantons (Nord and Sud) which also include neighboring suburban communities. The Nord canton has a population of 44,943 – about 25,000 over the theoretical ideal number of 20,000 – while the Sud canton has 33,944. Other cantons also exhibit such malapportionment: the canton of Les Sables-d’Olonne has a population of 47,026, Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie has 44,383 and Montaigu has 31,735. On the other hand, a handful of rural cantons are massively underpopulated: 4,699 in L’Île-d’Yeu, 8,531 in Chaillé-les-Marais or 8,501 in Sainte-Hermine. Besides the division of La Roche into two cantons sometime in the past, the cantonal map of the Vendée in 2012 is identical to that of 1912.

The Vendée has 17 seats in the regional council of the Pays de la Loire, which is governed by a Vendéen, Jacques Auxiette (PS). 10 seats are held by the left, split between 6 PS, 2 EELV, 1 PRG and 1 ecologist. 7 seats are held by the right, split between 3 UMP, 3 MPF and 1 NC.

Overview of Recent Elections


Results of the 2007 presidential runoff by commune

The Vendée is a right-wing stronghold at all levels of government. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) won 57.06% of the vote against 42.94% for Ségolène Royal (PS), making the Vendée 4% more right-wing than nationally. The fourth constituency (60%) and the third constituency (62%) often tend to be the most right-leaning constituencies.

No left-wing presidential candidate has won a majority of the votes in the Vendée. François Mitterrand (PS) came closest to doing that in his 1988 landslide re-election, when he took 46.06% to Jacques Chirac’s 53.94%. This gives the impression of a long-time right-wing stronghold, but when we expand our analysis to presidential elections since 1965, we find that the Vendée has trended sharply towards the left since 1965. In 1965, when Charles de Gaulle won 71.15% of the vote in the Vendée, the department was 16.65% more right-wing than France. In 1974, it was 16.27% more right-wing and in 1988 it was only 7.92% more right-wing. The major shift took place between 1995 and 2007. Chirac won 60.5% of the votes in the Vendée in 1995, 7.82% more than his national result.

On April 22, 2007; the Vendée gave Sarkozy 29.7% of the vote, less than the 31.18% he won nationally. An underperformance due, of course, to the native-son candidacy of Philippe de Villiers (MPF) who placed fourth with 11.28% (he won 2%) nationally, a result far below that which he won in his first presidential candidacy in 1995, when he won his home department with some 22% of the vote. Royal won 21.7%, against 25.9% nationally. François Bayrou (UDF) outperformed his national average in the Vendée, with 20.77% of the vote against 18.6% nationally. Jean-Marie Le Pen won only 6.46%, below his 10.4% nationally. In 2002, Jacques Chirac won the Vendée with 24.9% against 14.8% for Lionel Jospin and 11.8% for Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1995, it was de Villiers who won the Vendée with 22%, with Edouard Balladur placing second with 20.2%. Chirac won 18.2%, placing fourth behind Jospin (19.5%).

In European elections, the Vendée stands out the most from the rest of France, having voted for right-wing lists supported or led by Philippe de Villiers in all Euros since 1994. Even in 2009, when de Villiers’ MPF-CPNT lists performed poorly nationally, he won 33% of the vote against 22.5% for the UMP. The PS placed a distant third with 12.8%, against 11.9% for their Green rivals.

In the 2010 regional elections, the UMP won 37.8% (against 32.8% in the region) against 34.9% (against 34.4% in the region) for the PS in the first round. The EELV list, with 10.6%, underperformed its regional showing of 13.6%. The FN list, with 6.8%, also underperformed its regional average (7%) as did a PG-PCF list which won only 3.55% against 5% in the region. In the runoff, the left won 50.29% to the right’s 49.71%; while in the region as a whole the left was victorious with 56.39% of the votes.

The Vendée’s political inclination can still be summarized as being heavily right-wing, with a strong base for its favourite son’s party, the MPF. However, the left has tended to break into the right’s historical hegemony at all levels. Yet, treating the Vendée as an homogeneous entity is still incorrect.

Regional Voting Patterns


% vote for Nicolas Sarkozy, 2007 runoff; divided by geographic region

Voting patterns in the Vendée are pretty heavily regionally-based, with our aforementioned geographic regions often carrying a pretty clear and consistent political orientation, which in some cases has hardly changed since the days of André Siegfried, whose political description of the Vendée and the rest of western France in 1913 remains one of the greatest books ever written about elections and political behaviour in France.

The Vendée straddles the border of western France and the rest of France. This border is formed by the line dividing the plaine from the bocage, a line which is not only an artificial man-made border which in the end means little on the ground but is a crucial line which divided, in the past at least, two worlds. We touched on some of the distinctions between these two geographic regions of the Vendée in our geographic overview of the department. From a political standpoint, there are a number of additional distinctions to make about this line which divides these two regions.

Google Earth images of typical regions of the Plaine and the Bocage; both examples in the Vendée (source: Google Earth)

The line acts a natural boundary for three main socio-political or demographic factors: type of settlement, form of agriculture and religiosity. The divide, which is of course also a geological divide, separates nucleated population from dispersed population. The population of the marais and the openfield plain have traditionally been nucleated, in that the bulk of the commune’s population lived in a cohesive village and not dispersed throughout the commune’s legal boundaries. On the other hand, the bocage is very much a country of dispersed settlement. Our description of the bocage’s landscape above, as being a mystical-like maze of hedges, lanes and isolated farms, should make this seem obvious. Dispersed populations tend to live all over the commune, concentrated in tiny groupings of 3-5 farmhouses on an isolated lane or road while comparatively few people live in the commune’s main town.

While speaking in such terms in this day and age, when the bulk of population is just ‘urban’ in a way or another, is anachronistic and archaic; the effects of historical settlement patterns in forming political traditions should not be underrated. Nucleated settlements, with communal life were much concentrated into a village life, made social interactions easier and far more common. The nucleated populations were more open to new political ideas, such as republicanism or socialism, and also more resistant towards hierarchical institutions including nobility or the church. On the other hand, dispersed populations seldom had the chance to congregate and the natural isolation of habitats made such congregations difficult. In turn, newfangled political ideas faced a much tougher crowd, one which was individualistic but also far more loyal to traditional social actors including nobility or the church.

The second main divide between the two Vendées is found in the form of agriculture (le mode de faire-valoir agricole). The cereal-growing openfields of the plain has historically been a land of smallholdings, where individual farmers owned and worked their land. Of course, agriculture is no longer the employer it was a hundred years ago and the remnants of agriculture have been mechanized or concentrated into larger farms. The social relations which agriculture used to breed a hundred years ago are no longer relevant in regions such as western France. But, again, we should not underestimate the importance of these traditions in forming political traditions which have survived to this day.

On the other hand, the bocage was very much a country of grande propriété: large properties owned by a single individual or nuclear family, traditionally a noble or aristocrat. However, the bocage was at the same time a land of big property and petite exploitation indirecte which meant that while a rich noble owned the bulk of the land in a commune, he did not work his land himself and instead delegated that task to sharecroppers or farmers who worked their own tiny parcel under contract with the landowner. Thus, the bocage is a land of sharecroppers, farm workers and tenant farmers. In 1942, faire-valoir direct (often smallholders or at least those who owned and worker their land) represented only 30% of the land in the Vendée, the third lowest in France (tied with the Nord). Tenant farming (fermage) represented 44% and sharecropping (métayage) represented 26% of the land.

What can be the political and social implications of such an economic setup? André Siegfried defined the political regime of the bocage as a hierarchy in 1912. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers, timid and respectful of established hierarchy, lived in fear or at least apprehension of the landowner who, despite the patriarchal twist which their relations naturally took, could still evict a sharecropper or farmer or not renew a lease. In the bocage, the old nobility of the Ancien Régime remained socially, economically and politically predominant well into the twentieth century. However, Siegfried distinguished the Vendéan aristocracy from that of Anjou. The nobility of the bocage, Siegfried wrote, was rougher in its manners, lifestyle and culture. He wrote that there were amongst its members “plenty of boorish types, drinkers and gamblers; and especially a lot of mediocrity”. But at the same time, Siegfried noted that despite this, the aristocracy was local, rural and prestigious. Traditions of hierarchy and respect for authority made them respected figures of authority.

% of girls attending private (religious) schools in 1911-1912 (source: A. Siegfried, Tableau Politique de la France de l'Ouest)

The third factor, and one which is still relevant to this day and age, is that of religiosity. The role of religiosity in shaping one’s political behaviour in France need not be emphasized. The divide between the plain and bocage is also one of religiosity. Nucleated populations were more resistant to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Thus, the plaine poitevine became an anti-clerical region, resistant of the church and the hierarchy which it entailed until the 1960s. On the other hand, the bocage is one of the most clerical regions of France. The Catholic Church remained a dominant social and political actor well into the 1950s and 1960s in the Vendée and the influence of Catholicism (clericalism) can still be felt to this day in the bocage. The chouannerie of 1793 was very much led by the clergy rather than the aristocracy. Siegfried noted that in contrast to the Anjou, the clergy was the dominant social and political actor over the aristocracy.

The priest in the Vendée commanded tremendous political influence and authority. His word, united to that of the aristocrat, carried a great meaning and was always ensured a receptive audience. Siegfried cited fear, respectful affection, habit and devotion as the main factors in explaining the attachment of the Vendée to its priests and clergy. In 1912, the alliance of “church and castle” was far more powerful than whatever republican institutions existed on the ground, the high attendance rates of private schools is but one proof of this. While the remnants of French aristocracy only serve to provide fodder for Point de Vue in this day and age, the church maintained its direct conservative political influence over the Vendée until the 1950s or 1960s. While society has been extensively secularized and fundamentally transformed, it is undeniable that such a clerical tradition has shaped political opinions even in 2012 in a significant way.

The Marais and the Plaine

What remains of the republican traditions of the plain and the marais? Using the above map showing the vote for Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 runoff divided by commune, we can see that, outside of the coastal region, the plain and marais have retained their left-wing traditions. Only a handful of communes in the inland regions of the plain and marais gave Sarkozy a result similar to or above his departmental average (57%). The old republican stronghold of Fontenay-le-Comte gave him only 50.6% of the vote, and Royal won Saint-Hilaire-des-Loges with 54.4%. At a municipal level, Fontenay-le-Comte was the preserve of Gaullist deputy André Forens, who served as mayor between 1965 and 1981 and again between 1989 and 1995. Since 1995, however, the left has held the mayor’s office, first in the person of Jean-Claude Remaud (PRG, ex-PS) who was badly defeated by a PS candidate in 2008.

At a more macro cantonal level, Chaillé-les-Marais, located entirely in the marais, has almost always been the most left-wing canton. It is the only canton where the PCF was truly a potent political force for quite some time and it was won by Lionel Jospin even in the 2002 rout. Nicolas Sarkozy took 48.8% of the vote in the canton. He also lost neighboring Maillezais, a mixed plaine-marais canton, with 49.7% of the vote. He won 50.6% of the vote in the canton of Saint-Hilaire-des-Loges, 50.9% in the canton of Fontenay-le-Comte, 50.6% in Sainte-Hermine (mixed plaine-bocage), 51.8% in Mareuil (mixed) and 54.1% in Luçon (mixed plaine-marais-coastal). In 1912, these cantons had all been defined by Siegfried as strongly left-leaning (which meant something different in 1912).

The marais, a Bonapartist stronghold until the 1880s, transformed into a left-wing, anti-clerical republican stronghold similar to other “left-wing Bonapartist” regions such as the Charentes but unlike “conservative Bonaparist” regions such as Normandy. Siegfried noted that from its Bonapartist days, the marais had retained an appetite for populism and ‘la manière forte‘ (‘the hard way’, in a non-authoritarian way) which went a bit against the desires of the rule-bound parliamentary opportunist republicans of the era. It would be interesting to speculate about the veracity of Siegfried’s description of the attitude, and explore whether it might explain why places like Chaillé-les-Marais flirted more than once with the PCF and later carried some attachment to Gaullism.

The plaine, as Siegfried described it, a region of smallholders attached to their private property, was not particularly inclined towards Marxism or socialism in its pure form. Indeed, the plaine was long a Radical stronghold and only developed a strong attachment with the SFIO and PS at the point where French socialism replaced the Radicals in the old radical strongholds in both style and substance.

In understanding the left-wing tradition of the plain and marais, one should perhaps not understate the influence of the neighboring cities of La Rochelle and Niort on the region. Both have had an influential Protestant community, and Protestants have often been recognized as being key drivers of republicanism in early modern France. Niort and its cooperative movement has long been a Socialist stronghold, while La Rochelle’s republicanism shone on its surroundings. Both the plain and marais were closely attached to Niort and La Rochelle, in some cases some parts of the Vendée are becoming suburbs of both these cities…

The Vendée’s gradual trend to the left since the 1970s has not come primarily from the old left-wing regions of the plains or the marais. Indeed, in most of the old republican bastions of the Vendée, Nicolas Sarkozy either performed as well as, slightly better or just slightly poorer than Jacques Chirac had in 1995 – when Chirac won 60% to Sarkozy’s 57% in the department. Chirac won 52% in Fontenay-le-Comte (city) and 46.3% in Saint-Hilaire-des-Loges (city).

A left-wing tradition can still be perceived, albeit not to the same extent, in the old limestone island of Chantonnay (a plaine within the bocage). Sarkozy won 53% in Chantonnay (city) and roughly 53% in the other communes which make up the limestone island. In contrast, in the neighboring communes of the bocage, Sarkozy won between 57% and 68% of the vote. Royal seems to have performed much better than Jopsin in Chantonnay proper, taking 47% against Jospin’s 39% in 1995. But Jospin had already performed rather strongly in other parts of this “limestone island.”

The (remants of the) Bocage Vendéen and the Marais breton

The bocage, on the other hand, has retained its conservative political inclinations. However, the scope of the bocage has been diminished by major socio-demographic changes in what used to be a politically homogeneous region. The bocage, in its traditional sense as a rural or semi-rural region, has been shrunk to the confines of the haut-bocage, traditionally the most conservative part of the bocage and an embodiment of what Siegfried had called a “mystical” region of mazes, small roads and hamlets hidden behind hedges.

While the bocage is no longer as Siegfried described it one hundred years ago: agriculture barely has a presence, and it has become far more urbanized and far less isolated than it used to be. It is also a fairly working-class region: the percentage of ouvriers (manual workers) is 36% in Montaigu, 37.8% in Mortagne, 44.6% in Saint-Fulgent, 40.2% in Les Herbiers, 42.9% in Pouzauges and 41.2% in La Châtaigneraie. I do not know much about the type of ouvriers this would encompass, but most of ‘rural France’ nowadays has similarly high percentage of manual workers, employed in low-paying jobs in small towns, small industries and small businesses.

However, the bocage has always remained a devoutly Catholic region. The church no longer has any direct political influence (though it did as late as the 1960s or 1970s), but centuries of attachment to the conservative teachings and traditions of the church, the traditions of hierarchy and respect for authority and general social conservatism bred by the church certainly still carries a major influence. Few observers care to admit it these days, but to this day, in a good number of regions, a clerical tradition trumps a working-class tradition when the two coincide.

The marais breton, if geology was to be a faultless indicator of political inclination, should lean to the left like the marais poitevin. But geology is nothing more than a coincidental indicator of voting patterns. The marais breton is indeed not identical to the bocage. The land structure was, when such stuff mattered, far more divided and home to a coincidence of small property and larger property. But in other aspects it is closer to the bocage: the habitat is fairly dispersed, and it has always been a clerical Catholic region. It has always been a traditionally right-wing region.

Nicolas Sarkozy won his best results in the bocage. He took over 60% of the vote in a good numbers in the bocage, performing best (65.1%) in the canton of La Châtaigneraie, and also won 64% in Saint-Fulgent, 61.4% in Mortagne, 60.5% in Les Herbiers and 60.4% in Rocheservière. He also won 59% in Pouzauges and 56.8% in Montaigu. In the marais breton, he took 62% in Palluau, 61.7% in Challans and 63% in Beauvoir-sur-Mer.

Results of the 1995 presidential runoff by commune

However, Nicolas Sarkozy’s performance in the bocage was far less impressive than that of other right-wing presidential candidates in the past. Case in point, Jacques Chirac’s impressive performance in the bocage in 1995. He won 70.1% of the vote in the fourth constituency (Montaigu), which covers the heart of the bocage and is traditionally one of the most conservative constituencies in France (it was represented by Philippe de Villiers for years). In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy won only 59.96% of the vote. Ségolène Royal did about 10 percentage points better than Jospin in 1995, but far more impressive was that she even did better than François Mitterrand in 1988: 40% to 36.7% for Mitterrand in 1988 (in the whole of France, she performed about 8 percentage points lower than Mitterrand).

Cantonal results are not available for 1995, but at the communal level, to name just a few examples and draw comparisons to 1995: Chirac won 60.9% in Montaigu (commune), Sarkozy got 55%. Chirac won 70% in Les Herbiers (commune), Sarkozy took only 59.6%. Chirac won 63% in Mortagne, Sarkozy won only 53.9%. These are only a few examples in the larger urban areas, Sarkozy’s under-performance was even more pronounced in more rural areas. He was often down 10% or more from Chirac’s 1995 performance, which in many cases broke 70%, 75% or 80% of the vote. Nicolas Sarkozy did not do as poorly in the marais breton, where demographic changes are more favourable to the right.

Part of this pretty dramatic under-performance might be the result of poorer vote transfers from Philippe de Villiers’ vote to Sarkozy in 2007 than to Chirac in 1995 (this is the region where de Villiers had done best). Indeed, in Philippe de Villiers’ native commune of Boulogne (which he won in both years in the first round), Chirac won 77.2% of the vote in 1995 and Sarkozy only 55.9% in 2007. It is a bit harder to explain why Philippe de Villiers’ core electorate would have been drawn more to Chirac than to Sarkozy, given that both of those campaigns were fairly populist and not too big on the whole ‘federal Europe’ aspect which was more the affair of Balladur and Bayrou in 1995 and 2007 respectively. On the other hand, Nicolas Sarkozy likely ate up a lot of de Villiers’ 1995 electorate by the first round and what was left of Philippe de Villiers’ electorate in 2007 was far more resistant to Sarkozy, which they could logically perceive as a liberal pro-European right-winger (which was indeed Sarkozy’s image prior to 2002-2007).

Demographic changes local to the region may also explain some of this shift to the left. Besides the suburban growth of La Roche-sur-Yon, which we will discuss later, there has been some fairly strong population growth in most of the haut-bocage in the first years of the twenty-first century, likely linked to suburban/exurban growth from Nantes-Clisson and Cholet. The 1999-2008 decade saw fairly robust population growth in most of the bocage, a change from earlier decades when the rural population in the Vendée often declined.

However, another explanation is one which can be generalized to other similarly Catholic regions of France (especially neighboring Bretagne and Anjou). Voters of “Catholic tradition” – which we can define as less clerical, less practicing in these days but still influenced by a Catholic upbringing, environment and political tradition – have shifted pretty dramatically to the left in recent years (though it is a long-term process, begun in the 1980s). In the 1960s and 1970s, the bulk of the “Catholic” vote (practicing + tradition) was solidly right-wing, in part out of the fear of the atheist “Reds”. When the experience of the left in power in 1980s broke those old reflexes and fears of baby-eating communists, those voters gradually shifted to the left. After all, despite all that has been said about the Catholic Church being reactionary and so forth, the Catholic tradition often went hand-in-hand with pro-European views (in part, likely, because of the idea of ‘Europe as a Christian project’, which is not uniquely French) and more centrist views on economic matters and social policy; closer to the Christian democratic MRP tradition of the “third-way” between liberalism and socialism than to the right’s traditional liberalism.

There is also the very important matter, of course, that few people still go to church on a regular basis (and those who do are as strongly right-wing as ever). Church-attendance has dwindled almost everywhere in France since 1960s. In the 1960s, we defined “church-going” as those who went to church weekly. Today, we often define “church-going” as those who go to church monthly. As voters become less drawn to the church and its conservative inclinations, it is fairly natural that they would be more left-wing than in the past or than their parents ever were.

La Roche-sur-Yon

The most important socio-demographic evolution in the bocage is urban growth around La Roche-sur-Yon. La Roche-sur-Yon, the administrative centre of the Vendée, is a new city by European standards (200 years old) because it was an artificial creation of Napoleon. It was, for many years, as if somebody had dropped a bunch of buildings in the middle of the countryside without anybody in the countryside noticing it. It attracted, during the republican era, the government employees which formed the backbone of the republic throughout France, but the city was never a capital for the “real Vendée” (to speak like Sarah Palin). The aristocracy and the rural bourgeoisie, if it was drawn to a urban area, was drawn to Nantes, which in those years was the urban preserve of the rural aristocracy. La Roche was shunned as a republican creation, and until the 1950s-1960s, La Roche remained a fairly small urban centre (24k inhabitants in 1962) and its political impact on the surrounding region was minimal.

Since the 1960s, however, La Roche has seen major demographic growth. In 1968, following a merger with two communes, the city had a population of 36k. In 2009, it had a population of 52.2k. La Roche is similar to other cities in western France: a fairly white-collar, middle-class city with a large population of employees or middle-level managers or public servants, what we can call classes moyennes salariées (salaried middle-classes, which can encompass teachers, nurses, sales representatives, supervisors and so on). The population tends to be younger and more educated than the national average.

La Roche itself has always been a republican stronghold. The right has rarely governed the city, though the RI deputy Paul Caillaud was mayor between 1961 and 1977. Since 1977, the city has been a left-wing stronghold. Jacques Auxiette, the current PS president of the regional council, was mayor between 1977 and 2004, and since 2004 by Pierre Regnault (PS), reelected in 2008 with 50.1% of the vote by the first round. In 1995, Lionel Jospin took 53.4% of the vote, Royal won 58.4%.

However, the novelty here is that La Roche now has a pretty clear zone of suburban influence. Growth in suburban communities has been strong since the 1960s, and the extent of La Roche’s suburban circle continues to expand. The city’s suburban communities largely resemble the original core: middle-class, salaried employees, some public servants and an increasing number of young families (which is one of the only thing in which it differs from the original urban core: there are far more single couples or singles in the city than in the suburbs).

This is, in general, a trend which favours the left. Indeed, Lionel Jospin had won La Roche and a neighboring commune, but had lost (fairly narrowly) to Chirac in the suburbs. Royal, however, swept the suburbs. Jacques Chirac won 48.5% in La Ferrière, Sarkozy took 45.9%. In Mouilleron-le-Captif, the right declined from 53% to 49%. In Dompierre-sur-Yon, the right fell from 51.4% to 44.4%. In Venansault, Chirac won 58.3% but Sarkozy took only 49.5%. If you refer to the map of the Sarkozy vote in 2007 divided by region, you will quickly notice how the sub-50% performances by Sarkozy in the centre of the Vendée correspond quasi-perfectly to the La Roche-sur-Yon agglomeration. Sarkozy still won the more distant, exurban areas, but it would not be surprising to see him lose those areas in 2012 (even if he wins narrowly).

Nicolas Sarkozy proved to be a poor candidate for these types of middle-class, “socially liberal” (to use an American term) urban and suburban areas. His populist appeal was tailored far more towards lower-income, working-class or exurban pavillons in eastern France which are far less socially liberal and drawn much more towards the far-right in part because of immigration issues. The lack of a large immigrant population in the Vendée, of course, explains why such a factor is not at work. This trend towards the left was not provoked by Sarkozy, but he was not a good candidate to limit or halt this trend.

The Coast

If you recall our division of the department into regions, I felt it necessary to separate the coast from the traditional regions of the marais, plaine and bocage. When Siegfried wrote about the Vendée (and indeed the rest of the coastal west), the coast was largely a region of fishermen, most of whom were republicans. You might still have fisherman today, but the vast majority of the Vendéan coast since the 1960s has been entirely changed by the growth of coastal resort towns (the stations balnéaires), through a process often referred to in French as baléarisation. The coastal region (the ‘Côte de Lumière’) saw major population growth, concentrated in regional clusters, since the late 1960s. The first wave touched the coastal communities between Les Sables-d’Olonne (which itself has been in decline since the 1960s) and Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, the second wave expanded into the coastal communities south of Les Sables-d’Olonne near Talmont-Saint-Hilaire. The resulting situation is that the whole of the coast, from Noirmoutier to L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer is a giant tourist coast, which even extends north to reach the resorts around Pornic in Loire-Atlantique.

What are the demographic results of such a phenomenon? Firstly, a very old population. Those aged above 60 can make up to 40% of the population in most of the coastal communities. Insee’s indice de vieillissement (not the median age, but a ratio between those 60+ and those 20-) gives very high numbers (the higher the number, the larger the proportion of 60+ residents vis-a-vis 20- residents) along most of the coast: 78.5 in Les Sables, 67.2 in Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, 53.7 in Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, 63.7 in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, 73.3 in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, 82.4 in Jard-sur-Mer and 78.4 in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer. Retirees often make up an absolute majority or a large plurality of residents along the coast. Secondly, a very big proportion of second homes (résidences secondaires) which indicates homes used for vacations, week-ends or other touristic purposes. Along the coast, in some of the smaller communes, they can often make up some 55-70% of the total number of the total number of houses. Thirdly, a generally affluent population, with median household incomes usually above 18,000 euros.

It is certainly no secret that the growth of resort towns, stations balnéaires, in France, is very favourable to the right. The mix of a tourism-driven economy and an old population of affluent retirees who have moved to the coasts is a perfect recipe for a strong right-wing vote. Nicolas Sarkozy won 62% in Les Sables-d’Olonne, 66.9% in Bretignolles-sur-Mer, 61.6% in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, 59.4% in Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, 67.2% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, 65.6% in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, 62.6% in Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, 66.7% in Jard-sur-Mer, 64.6% La Tranche-sur-Mer, 63.4% in La-Faute-sur-Mer and 61.8% in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer.

Les Sables-d’Olonne at the municipal level is the impregnable stronghold of the Gaullist (RPR) deputy Louis Guédon, who has held the city’s reins with much ease since 1980. The right has governed since 1947.

Nicolas Sarkozy performed slightly better (or equal to) Chirac in most of the resort towns. Using our same sample of towns, using 1995 results instead we find Chirac winning 60% in Les Sables-d’Olonne, 65.1% in Bretignolles-sur-Mer, 60.9% in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, 55.8% in Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, 66% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, 63.2% in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, 60% in Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, 57.3% in Jard-sur-Mer, 65% La Tranche-sur-Mer, 60.3% in La-Faute-sur-Mer and 60.2% in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer. Nicolas Sarkozy was a fairly good candidate for resort towns, though Jacques Chirac was too.

Europe and abstention

The Vendée’s attitude towards Europe as embodied by the 1992 Maastricht and 2005 TCE can be summarized as being “divided” but when you pause for a more detailed look, we find some rather interesting contrasts between the two votes. In 1992, the Vendée rejected Maastricht with 50.3% voting against. In 2005, the Vendée approved the TCE with 50.2% voting in favour. A result which further amuses when one considers that one of the biggest cheerleaders of the no in both years was Philippe de Villiers. In both referendums, 1992 and 2005, the Vendée voted for the option which lost nationally, and more impressively, was the only department to vote against Maastricht in 1992 but in favour of the TCE in 2005.

I am one of those who subscribes to the view that both referendums were fought heavily along class lines. But this explanation cannot be everything, as the Vendée shows. A side-by-side analysis of a map of the 1992 and 2005 results at a communal level reveals interesting contrasts between both years, with some communes switching allegiances in sync with the national mood (yes in 1992, no in 2005) but a good number also switching allegiances ‘out of sync’ with the French mood (no in 1992, yes in 2005). This also happened at a constituency level: the second constituency (Roche-Sud) voted in favour in 1992 (53%) but against in 2005 (50.4%). Likewise in the fifth constituency (Fontenay) which was in favour in 1992 (51.3%) but against (53.5%) in 2005. One constituency voted against in 1992 but in favour in 2005 – the fourth constituency (Montaigu) which was against in 1992 with 51.6% but in favour in 2005 with a full 55.7%. What is remarkable about the fourth constituency? It is one of the most right-wing constituencies east of Neuilly-sur-Seine, but it is also the former constituency of Philippe de Villiers.

The communal map reveals the same patterns: the base of the yes vote shifted between 1992 and 2005, from a base largely concentrated in La Roche and Fontenay in 1992 to a base heavily concentrated in the haut-bocage in 2005. The coast and marais breton remained solid in their opposition, while La Roche-sur-Yon’s urban area remained consistently in favour. Why this shift, especially in the fourth constituency, which would have been expected to follow the opposition of its favourite son in 2005.

In French referendums, some voters answer the question which is asked, but for a lot of voters, they answer the person who asked that question (usually they don’t give a pleasant answer to said person). This was the case in 2005, when the referendum also took the form of a protest vote against the Chirac-Raffarin governing duo; but in 1992, there was also a strong right-wing protest vote against the Mitterrand presidency (which was very unpopular by then). In the plaine in 1992, we find that the more left-wing areas around Fontenay voted in favour, but the solidly right-wing areas of the bocage from Montaigu down to La Châtaigneraie voted against. Philippe de Villiers likely played a role in boosting that opposition in 1992, given that the ultimate Villieriste stronghold – his birthplace (Boulogne) was more than 70% against. I would probably describe the opposition of the bocage in 1992 as falling into the second category – people who answer the person who asked the question rather than the question itself – given that Catholicism goes hand-in-hand with a pro-European vote.

Something which 2005 proved, but which might have exaggerated given that right-wing voters felt no contradiction in voting yes to a “right-wing referendum” unlike voting yes to a “left-wing referendum” in 1992. The 2005 map shows a solid block of support in the most conservative parts of the bocage and haut-bocage in eastern Vendée, from Montaigu down to La Châtaigneraie and extending even into the villieriste strongholds in Les Essarts (but Boulogne voted against, though far less enthusiastically). The 2005 results were certainly quite a rebuke of the local favourite son, whose social conservatism might be well in sync with the Vendéan electorate but whose Euroscepticism is slightly out of place in a traditionally pro-European department.

La Roche-sur-Yon remained consistent, more or less, in its support for Europe in both 1992 and 2005. The no vote was stronger in 2005, especially in the less affluent southern commuter belt communities, but remained strong in the urban core and the more affluent and middle-class professional northern commuter belt communities. In this case, demographics trumped partisan roots: urban-suburban salaried middle-classes, young and educated families and some public servants can be expected to be fairly pro-European.

The coast and the marais breton were consistent, more or less, in their opposition on both years. In 2005, some resort towns such as Saint-Jean-de-Monts, Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, Les Sables-d’Olonne and La Tranche-sur-Mer switched from opposition in 1992 to support in 2005 (in this case, partisanship is likely the cause). Outside the major coastal centres (the ‘big’ resorts which draw most tourists), small resort towns or retirement communities have generally tended to be fairly Eurosceptic in both years.

In terms of abstention, the Vendée is a fairly civic department. In 2007, abstention in the first round was 11.9% and 12.7% in the runoff (it was 16% nationally). In 2002, abstention was 24% in the first round against 28% nationally. As is usual, turnout is usually lower in large urban areas (86.5% in La Roche-sur-Yon in 2007), but also along the coast where the population fluctuates a lot and where voters are probably less politicized, less drawn to vote. Turnout was 84.8% in the canton of Les Sables in 2007, 84.8% in Challans or 85.7% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts. The two islands also have below-average turnout. Turnout is much higher in the more closely-knit small towns of the bocage, where the clerical tradition has also had its impact on boosting turnout. Turnout was 89.5% in Montaigu (canton), 89.9% in Saint-Fulgent, 89.6% in Le Poiré-sur-Vie and 89.3% in Rocheservière to name just a few examples. The left-wing plaine and marais usually have fairly average turnout, but sometimes they join the ranks of low turnout cantons.

Partisan Bases of Support


% vote for Philippe de Villiers, 2007 (source: geoclip)

Philippe de Villiers is probably the most well-known Vendéan politician, and, as said above, he continues the stereotype of the Vendée as an ultra-conservative rural backwater which elects weirdos like l’agité du bocage. The Viscout Philippe de Villiers, who had served as secretary of state in the Chirac-II government between 1986 and 1987, was originally a member of the UDF’s liberal wing (the PR) before founding his political movement, Combat pour les valeurs in 1991 and the MPF in 1994. He served in the National Assembly for most years between 1987 and 2004, served as an MEP for various terms and since 2004, and most importantly he was the president of the general council of the Vendée between 1988 and 2010.

Since his resignation from the departmental presidency, the fate of the MPF is uncertain. It still has two deputies, Véronique Besse (who replaced de Villiers in 2004) and Dominique Souchet (who won the seat held by Joël Sarlot in a 2008 by-election) and one Senator (Philippe Darniche) whose jobs are fairly solid, but it is left with only 5 general councillors and the only up-and-rising politician in the MPF, Bruno Retailleau (de Villiers’ former right-hand man), who is the current president of the general council, broke from the MPF after a bad spat with the Viscount following the latter’s veto to the former’s entrance into the Fillon cabinet. In the 2010 by-election to replace Philippe de Villiers in the canton of Montaigu, the MPF mayor of Montaigu, Antoine Chéreau, was surprisingly defeated by a DVD candidate. Outside the department, the MPF also finds itself with a very limited base: Philippe de Villiers’ alliance with the hunters and Declan Ganley in 2009 only saved his own seat in the EU Parliament, and the only major MPF base outside the Vendée (in Orange, Vaucluse with ex-FN deputy Jacques Bompard and his wife) is no more since Bompard left the party in 2010. Guillaume Peltier, Philippe de Villiers’ very own young rising star (another ex-FN element), realized that his star could rise more within the UMP than in the dwindling MPF.

Before commenting on Philippe de Villiers and the MPF’s base in the Vendée, it is crucial to point out that there is a strong favourite son vote for Philippe de Villiers which gives the MPF results above its national average everywhere in the department. In 2007, Philippe de Villiers won only 11.3% of the vote, down from 22% in 1995. But at the level of Euro elections, the Vendée has been unique in that it has voted for the villieriste list in all EU elections since 1994 – even in 2009 it won 33% of the vote.

At any rate, it is still worthwhile to break the favourite son vote down: where is it highest, where is it lowest?

The core of the MPF electorate is in the bocage and haut-bocage, which is not only Philippe de Villiers’ constituency and homebase but also the most conservative region of the department. Philippe de Villiers is not reflective of the traditional Catholic electorate in France, given that his base is with the fairly small and unrepresentative sample of devout church-goers rather than those of “Catholic tradition” who are more likely to vote for the UDF.

In 2007, he won 16.1% in the canton of Saint-Fulgent, 13.2% in his canton of Montaigu, 12.8% in his brother’s canton of Les Essarts, 12.6% in Les Herbiers, 14.9% in Pouzauges, 12.4% in Mortagne, 13.5% in La Châtaigneraie and 12.7% in Chantonnay. But the only commune he won in 2007 with some 22% was his birthplace of Boulogne, in Les Essarts. The MPF also performed well in the inland regions of the bocage to the east of La Roche and the marais breton. In 2007, Philippe de Villiers won 15.1% in Beauvoir-sur-Mer, 14.1% in Palluau, 13.1% in Challans, 12.7% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts and 12% in Talmont and La Mothe-Achard. He did poorly in Les Sables (9.4%) and in other wealthy resort communities. La Roche (only 5.3%) is very anti-villieriste as are its inner suburbs. The plaine and marais, especially the left-wing communes, are resistant to the MPF.

In 2002, Christine Boutin’s support was rather reflective of the traditional MPF electorate.

The FN

The FN has usually been fairly weak in the Vendée, which proves that rock-ribbed conservatism doesn’t necessarily equate itself with a strong FN vote. Jean-Marie Le Pen won 11.75% in the Vendée in 2002, against 16.9% nationally. In 2007, he won 6.5%, against 10.4% nationally. In 2010, the FN list took 6.8% of the vote.

The 2002 results were probably boosted a bit by the absence of Philippe de Villiers’ name on the ballot, leading some of the most conservative MPF voters to vote for Le Pen – who did indeed win 15.5% in Boulogne! However, taking 2002 as a fairly typical example of a FN at its peak, Le Pen won his best showings along the coast. Using a cantonal level, he won 15.6% in Talmont, 15.5% in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, 15.1% in Beauvoir-sur-Mer, 15.1% in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, 15% in both islands and 14.7% in Les Sables. His performances in the bocage, La Roche and around Fontenay were far less impressive, even by local standards. He won only 7.6% in the city of La Roche.

Given that “the FN vote in the Vendée” is not the subject of much analysis, it is hard to describe in much detail what type of FN vote is found in the department, especially along the coast. Based on my “four worlds of FN voters”, described in depth here, I would be tempted to qualify the FN vote as something between a type 1/type 1-bis and type-2 vote, with perhaps an added element of an undescribed “bourgeois right-wing vote” which is a cyclical protest vote by conservative right-wingers against the right-wing government of the day (Chirac was hardly popular in 2002). Indeed, a type-1 classification would make some sense given that Le Pen’s vote share in the third constituency (the coast) fell by more than it did nationally in 2007 (one of the rare Atlantic coast constituencies to do so), indicating that Sarkozy won a good share of the FN voters in that region.

The centre

As a Catholic department, the Vendée denotes itself by an above average vote for centrist candidates or parties of centrist tradition (the UDF). Jean Lecanuet in 1965 won 24% in the department, placing second (ahead of Mitterrand) and above his national average (15.9%). In 1988, Raymond Barre won 24% against 16.5% nationally. Even in 1995, rivaled by a candidate with roots in the UDF (but in the liberal faction, the PR), Balladur won 20.2% against 18.5% nationally, and placed 2 percentage points behind de Villiers, who won the department. In 2002, François Bayrou won 8.4% against 6.8% nationally. In 2007, Bayrou took 20.8% against 18.6% despite a Villiers who took 11.3% in the department, concentrated in the regions where the UDF usually performed best.

Bayrou’s electorate in 2007 was in some cases quite unlike the traditional UDF electorate, but in the Vendée his performance is rather typical of Christian democratic candidates. At a cantonal level, Bayrou’s cohesive base was in the haut-bocage. He won 26.5% in Mortagne, 27.8% in Les Herbiers, 24.4% in Montaigu, 24.4% in Les Essarts and 23.1% in Pouzauges. Balladur had also performed fairly well this region. The bocage is a Catholic region, which goes hand-in-hand with a strong centrist vote. Bayrou and the UDF is far more reflective of the traditional Catholic tradition electorate in France than Philippe de Villiers is. Bayrou (and Balladur)’s performances is made all the more impressive by the fact that Philippe de Villiers did best in these regions. In the bocage, he often placed second ahead of Royal.

Bayrou also did well in the far less clerical (to say the least!) but “socially liberal” and moderate urban-suburban areas of La Roche-sur-Yon. He won 21.4% in La Roche and did even better in the city’s affluent northern suburbs: 26.3% in Mouilleron-le-Captif, 23.5% in Venansault, 25% in La Ferrière and 24.9% in Dompierre-sur-Yon. In some communes, such as Mouilleron-le-Captif, he placed second – but this time ahead of Sarkozy. In this urban area, Bayrou touched a new(er) electorate for the centre: a professional, urban, educated, young and middle-class electorate which is not solidly left-wing but where the traditional right (especially the Sarkozyst UMP) is not the preferred alternative.

Bayrou did fairly well in the inland marais breton, but did poorly along the coast and in the left-wing plaine and marais. Coastal resort communities almost always favoured the RPR and Gaullists over the UDF. The UDF’s electorate in the inner west is usually a traditional, rural and Catholic vote. Resort towns do not have a natural inclination towards the UDF, but Balladur – not your typical UDF candidate – did well along the coast and in the resort communities. Then again, when it came to the wealthiest of right-wing voters, Balladur performed much better than Chirac in that “right-wing primary” of 1995.

The Greens

The Greens perform poorly in the Vendée: it is too rural, its urban areas are not large enough and not universally green-favourable and the coastal resort towns don’t like the Greens. In 2009, the Greens won 11.9%, placing third behind the PS (12.8%) and below its 16.3% national average. The Greens won 10.6%, against 13.6% in the region.

The Green electorate was heavily urban. In 2009, the Greens won 19.6% in La Roche-sur-Yon and did well in the city’s commuter communities, especially those north of the city. Elsewhere, the Greens did well near Montaigu which increasingly part of Nantes-Clisson’s larger suburban influence. The Greens did equally as well in the southeast of the department which is by now part of Niort’s suburban belt. On the other hand, the Greens did very poorly in rural areas – bocage, marais and plaine alike – and also performed poorly along the coast (especially the wealthiest resort towns). The Greens’ environmental positions is hardly a good match to these focal points of baléarisation.


It should not a shock to anyone that the Vendée is one of the PCF’s worst departments. Marie-George Buffet won 0.9% (and 1.9% nationally) and Robert Hue in 1995 won 4.8% (and 8.6% nationally). In 2009, the FG won only 2.7% in the department against 6.5% nationally. The PCF’s only relevant bases in the department are the left-wing areas of the marais and parts of the plaine. In 2009, the FG won 4.6% in Chaillé-les-Marais and 5.2% in L’Hermenault. It won 1.1% in Les Herbiers and Pouzauges. The PCF can also perform well in La Roche-sur-Yon proper (4.5% in 2009) and, amusingly, along the coast: 3.5% in the canton of Les Sables-d’Olonne, which had a PCF mayor between 1945 and 1947. This is most likely a core electorate made up of the few remaining fishermen in the towns along the coast.

Historical Voting Patterns


Legislative elections in the Vendée since 1871

The Vendée was a bulwark of reaction to the republican regime until the 1910s or 1920s. André Siegfried had described, in the bocage at least, a reactionary department, a land of hierarchical structures and where the nobility and clergy exerted significant political influence. Politics was conceded to be the business of the aristocrats and nobles, who only used elective office to perpetuate their hierarchical control of the region through the acquiescence and support of the Catholic Church. Elective office at all levels was usually held by aristocrats or their pawns, and often passed down from father to son. He remarked that the landscape and political attitudes of the bocage had hardly budged since the days of the chouannerie.

Between 1876 and the 1920s, the core monarchist base was found in the haut-bocage and the marais breton (Challans), the most reactionary regions and the heart of traditional Vendée. These two constituencies in the north of the department elected openly monarchist members between 1876 and 1914. By the 1880s and 1890s, being a monarchist became less fashionable and futile, leading most pragmatic conservatives to change their allegiances to one of défense catholique or even join the ranks of the republic through the ralliés (ALP). But in the Vendée, voters or rather their masters remained loyal to those die-hard reactionaries who remained loyal to the monarchy and the King until the very last day. The ALP elected only one deputy from the department, in 1914.

Challans’ constituency elected a monarchist noble, Armand Léon de Baudry d’Asson, a reactionary anti-Semitic monarchist, between 1876 and 1914. His son Armand Charles served between 1914 and 1928. Other monarchist deputies, such as Paul Antoine Charles Bourgeois, often tended to be similarly reactionary and of noble blood.

Republicans could hope to win more seats in what Siegfried called the élections d’appaisement where the blood wasn’t boiling on either side, where the issues were not as polarizing, when the government was popular and moderate, when nobody was alienated. 1881, 1893 and 1910 are examples of such elections. The right was usually demoralized, divided and unmotivated in those years. But in the élections de lutte, elections fought around a big issue which polarized the electorate, where the blood was boiling, when people hated each other’s guts and where the right was in a feisty combative mood against the godless republicans. 1876, 1877, 1885, 1898, 1902 and 1906 can be considered élections de lutte and the right invariably performed better as its mobilized its base (compare 1902 to 1893).

The marais poitevin was a Bonpartist stronghold from the 1870s till the 1890s. The constituency covering most of the marais elected Alfred Le Roux, a cabinet minister under the Second Empire, in 1877 while his son Paul Le Roux held the seat between 1881 and 1893 before serving in the Senate between 1894 and 1923. André Siegfried had described the mood in the marais as fiercely independent, populist and attached to ‘la manière forte‘ (‘the hard way’, in a non-authoritarian way). But it was an anti-clerical, left-wing Bonapartism which morphed into republicanism and radicalism fairly easily though the Boulangists and nationalists (of the 1902-1910 era) had some successes. The same constituency would later return Radical members for most of the Third Republic’s final years. In 1936, the Radicals won in most of the plaine and marais while an independent right-leaning Radical was successful in his home base of Les Sables, at that point a republican region. The bocage elected four FR deputies, representatives of the Catholic right and the most conservative of the right’s two big parties.

During the Fourth Republic and the early years of the Fifth Republic, the Vendée outside the handful of PCF or SFIO bases in the plaine, marais and La Roche was by and large a battleground between the two main factions of the French right: the Christian democrats of the MRP, locally represented by Lionel de Tinguy (deputy 1946-1958, 1962-1967) and Louis Michaud (deputy 1946-1967); and the family of the independents, “moderates” and so forth (the CNI), represented locally by Armand Quentin de Baudry d’Asson (grandson of the aforementioned monarchist, deputy from 1945 to 1958). The CNI has often been said to be the droite laïque as opposed to the Christian democrats, but there was nothing laïcard about Armand Quentin de Baudry d’Asson, the top cheerleader for Catholic private schools and often to the right of the MRP on such issues. Proportional representation allowed for the election of a SFIO member in 1945 and 1946, but the bulk of seats were divided between the independents and MRP. The two fought roughly an equal game in 1946, before Baudry d’Asson’s alliance with the Gaullists in 1951 carried him to a landslide.

In 1958, the department elected three CNI members while Louis Michaud was elected in the coastal constituency, defeating Baudry d’Asson. In 1962, Lionel de Tinguy defeated a sitting CNI member in La Roche while the Gaullists, including Vincent Ansquer in Montaigu, defeated the two other CNI members. The situation stabilized for years in 1967, with the defeat of Lionel de Tinguy by the RI mayor of La Roche Paul Caillaud and Louis Michaud’s defeat by the Gaullist Pierre Mauger, mayor of Les Sables between 1965 and 1971. André Forens, the Gaullist mayor of Fontenay-le-Comte and later UDF member defeated a sitting UDR member in 1973 but in 1981 he was defeated by Pierre Métais, the first Socialist to win a seat in the department through the single-member electoral system. Philippe Mestre (UDF-PR) was able to succeed Paui Caillaud in La Roche, defeating the PS mayor of the city since 1977, Jacques Auxiette.

Pierre Métais was able to win reelection fairly easily in a new fifth constituency in 1988, but once again it was only through strong support throughout the plaine and the marais’ cantons. The right, including Philippe de Villiers, parliamentarian since Vincent Ansquer’s death in 1987, held all other seats. By this time, the right was heavily dominated by the UDF, which elected Jean-Luc Préel in La Roche-Nord and reelected Philippe Mestre in La Roche-Sud. The RPR, with Pierre Mauger, held Les Sables, the old Gaullist fief. In 1993, Joël Sarlot (UDF) easily defeated the PS mayor of Fontenay in the fifth constituency. That same year, the RPR mayor of Les Sables since 1980, Louis Guédon, was elected in succession of Mauger. Sarlot was able to hang on by a much narrower in the vague rose of 1997. 1997 was otherwise marked by the election in La Roche-Sud of Dominique Caillaud, a UDF dissident backed by Philippe de Villiers’ ephemeral LDI.

All sitting members were easily reelected in 2002 and 2007. Véronique Besse, the MPF general councillor for Les Herbiers, succeeded Philippe de Villiers in a 2004 by-election. Joël Sarlot’ 2007 election was annulled by the Constitutional Council and he was succeeded by Dominique Souchet in 2008.

Hopefully this long post has gone a good way towards setting the facts straight and breaking the stereotypes and misconceptions about the Vendée, which is ultimately not as boring as its electoral record may indicate. Please indicate to me which departments you would like to see profiled next.

Political Profile: Savoie

In the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections of April-June 2012, this blog will look at some of the most interesting departments, profiling their political preferences, past and present. The first department to be profiled is Savoie.

When the name Savoie is evoked, the first thing which often comes to mind are ski resorts catering to an affluent clienteles and the beautiful snowy peaks of the Alps associated with skiing. Skiing and l’or blanc, however, is only part of the picture. The political reality of Savoie is rather different, hiding a fairly strong working-class presence and an interesting political evolution.

These political profiles will be broken down in a logical manner, from the basics to the details, covering the basic geography of a department, looking at its political institutions (constituencies, general councils, cantons), its general voting patterns and more detailed voting patterns in regards to the large political families.


Map of Savoie's regions and urban areas (self-made)

Savoie’s geography is largely dominated by mountains, meaning that the bulk of the department’s 410 thousand inhabitants reside either in the urbanized lowlands around Chambéry or in the valleys surrounded on both sides by mountains. Savoie can be divided fairly easily into four broad geographic regions. The bulk of the population lives in a region known as the combe de Savoie, an valley formed by the confluence of the Arc and Isère rivers. The Isère, which flows southward out of the department towards Grenoble through the Grésivaudan valley, forms a large valley extending all the way to Albertville. But Savoie’s largest city and prefecture, Chambéry, is not technically in the Isère valley. It lies to the south of the Lac du Bourget, and in a valley between the massif des Bauges and the massif de la Chartreuse. Aix-les-Bains, the department’s second largest city, lies on the shore of the Lac du Bourget. To the west, separated from the Chambéry area by the southernmost reaches of the Jura, the avant-pays savoyard is a fairly low-lying or hilly rural region.

The combe de Savoie forms the division between the two main mountainous regions of Savoie, each defined by a river valley. The Arc river, which flows south and then east, forms the Maurienne valley. The largest city in the Maurienne valley is Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, and its economy has traditionally been more dependent on industry than tourism. The Isère river, which continues by flowing south from Albertville to Moûtiers and then eastwards towards Bourg-Saint-Maurice, forms a valley known as the Tarentaise. This region has become heavily defined by ‘white gold’ which has made the riches of ski resorts including Val-d’Isère or Courchevel. The mountain range lying to the north of the Isère is known as the massif de Beaufort.

Political Representation and Institutions

Savoie has been represented by only three deputies since 1945, but following the 2009 Marleix redistricting, Savoie will be electing a fourth deputy in June 2012. It elected four members between 1928 and 1936, and elected five members between 1876 and 1914. The department was redistricted in 1875, 1927, 1958 and 1986.

A quick glance at the old (1986-2009) constituency map would give the impression of a fairly decent redistricting. In reality, the constituencies drawn by Charles Pasqua in 1986 were quite awful. The Maurienne has always defined a constituency, which was expanded in 1958 to take in the combe de Savoie around Montmélian, a fair enough compromise forced by population declines in the valley. But the 1986 redistricting split the city of Chambéry, which was probably not necessary, to give the southern and south-western cantons of the city (along with suburban La Ravoire and Cognin) to create an egregious constituency which spanned from the urban core of Chambéry to the remotest, most mountainous regions along the Italian border. The other two constituencies were less reprehensible, with the first constituency centered around Aix but taking in the rest of Chambéry, while the second constituency covered Albertville and the Tarentaise.

The 2009 redistricting, in which the department gained a seat due to rapid demographic growth in the Chambéry area, gave a chance to right old wrongs. The most logical option for a new constituency centered around Chambéry would have been one which stretches across the centre-west of the department, from the Bauges to the Chartreuse, thereby taking up the entirety of Chambéry and its suburbs (save La Ravoire) while leaving the less chambérien regions of the Isère valley out of it. The actual result is not the most optimal, though the new fourth constituency does re-unite Chambéry and some of its suburbs, but extends a bit too much to the east to take in the Isère valley cantons of Saint-Pierre-d’Albigny and Grésy-sur-Isère. Still, we can be pleased by a coherent second constituency in the Tarentaise, a purely aixoise first and a less insane third – it still borders on Chambéry, but is less reprehensible.

Savoie has returned three right-wing deputies since 1993, as it had between 1958 and 1973. Yet, between 1973 and 1993, with the exception of 1986, Savoie gave the left a 2-1 advantage in its parliamentary representation. Savoie has supplied a fair number of cabinet ministers in the past, including Pierre Cot, Louis Besson, Michel Barnier and Hervé Gaymard.

Savoie has two Senators, last renewed in 2004. It has returned one Socialist and one Gaullist to the Senate since 1995.

Savoie’s general council has 37 members. Governed by the right since 1982, the right found itself tied with the left in 2011, and the incumbent president of the general council, former cabinet minister and deputy Hervé Gaymard (UMP) was reelected in a tied vote against PS Senator Thierry Repentin thanks to seniority.

Savoie has relatively few cantons (37), which partly explains why it is fairly easy for it to switch in a wave election. There are, of course, major population disparities, between 2,604 people in mountainous Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis and 15,000 in most of the urban cantons of Chambéry and Aix (and 20,207 in La Ravoire), but this is nothing which cannot be seen elsewhere in France.

Savoie has 11 members of the regional council. The left won 7 in 2011, split between 4 PS and 3 Greens, while the UMP won 3 seats and the FN 2.

An Overview of Recent Elections

Results of the 2007 presidential runoff by commune

Savoie generally leans to the right in most elections. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) won 57.32% of the vote against 42.68% for Ségolène Royal (PS). The three constituencies taken as wholes do not show significant differences from one to the other, and Sarkozy won all three constituencies by similar margins – but he failed to break 60% in any one of them. The last left-wing candidate to win Savoie was François Mitterrand in the landslide of 1988, when he won 50.18% of the vote against 49.82% for Jacques Chirac (RPR). This gives the impression of a long-time right-wing stronghold, but digging deeper, we find that Mitterrand won Savoie in the much narrower left-wing victory of 1981 with 50.45%. Savoie was 4.3% more right-wing than the national average in 2007, and 3.8% more right-wing than the national average in 1988. But in 1974, Savoie was more evenly divided: it was 0.03% more left-wing than the national average and in 1965 it was a full 0.6% to the left of France, giving Mitterrand a fairly strong 46.07% of the vote against Charles de Gaulle.

On April 22, 2007; Savoie gave Sarkozy 33% of the vote, about 2% more than what he won nationally. Royal won 21.8%, against 25.9% nationally. François Bayrou (UDF) outperformed his national result in Savoie, with 20.1% against 18.6% nationally. Jean-Marie Le Pen, with 10.75%, barely outperformed his paltry national result of 10.4%. In 2002, however, Le Pen had prevailed over Chirac in the first round, with 19.8% (some 3% more than what he won nationally) against 18% for Chirac and only 13.1% for Lionel Jospin (PS) who did 3% worst than in the rest of the country. In 1995, Edouard Balladur won the right-wing matchup against Chirac in Savoie, with 20.3% against 18.7% for Chirac.

In the 2009 European elections, the UMP won 29.2% (slightly more than what it won nationally), while the Greens placed second with 19.9% – outperforming their national record of 16.3%. The PS, which won 16.5% nationally, won 14.5% in Savoie. The centre (8.1%) and the FN (6.6%) about matched their national results. In the 2010 regional elections, the UMP won 26.8% in the first round (against 26.4% region-wide) while the PS won 25.3% and the Greens won 19.1% (against 17.8% region-wide). The FN won 12.7%, less than the 14% it won in the region. In the runoff, Jean-Jack Queyranne’s left-wing coalition won 51.2% (a bit more than the 50.8% it won in the region as a whole) against 34.7% for the UMP and 14.1% for the FN (slightly less than in the region).

Savoie’s general political inclination can be summarized as being traditionally right-leaning, with a major far-right presence; while the left, progressively weakened in presidential elections, has a fairly significant Green component.

Regional Voting Patterns

In France, besides the usual class/income indicators, two other indicators can usually tell us a fair bit about the bases of a region’s political traditions: clericalism and the type of farming. Savoie, unlike Haute-Savoie, is not a particularly clerical save for Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis in the Haute-Maurienne. At the same time, Savoie is not either de-christianized land like parts of the Southwest and Limousin. It is not really anti-clerical in the aggressive, activist sense of the term, all while not being clerical either. Church attendance is good, but like in parts of Brittany or Normandy, the clergy’s political influence was limited and church-goers acted in independence from church actors.

The second indicator, less obvious to most observers, is that of the ‘type of farming’ or basically how the land was exploited: by sharecroppers, by tenant farmers or by owners who worked the land themselves. Like most mountainous regions, Savoie is a land of smallholders (so-called petite propriété). In 1942, 93% of the land in Savoie was directly worked and exploited by the owners themselves. For geographic regions, mountains and small valleys are hardly suitable for the larger properties which lead to sharecropping or tenant farming, both of which were all but absent from Savoie (1% and 6% respectively in 1942). The political implications of this should not be downplayed. Smallholders, especially those in mountainous regions, have tended to be the standard-bearers of the republic against reaction. Mountain villages and their inhabitants, living together in fairly nucleated environments, were more likely to live in a more homogeneous society lacking strict social hierarchy or classes.

The savoyard right finds its strongest support in the Tarentaise. In a distant past, there was likely a strong element of agrarian rural conservatism to this strength, and it can still be found in parts of Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis, but the Tarentaise is nowadays driven by ski resorts – the famous white gold. The major ski resorts in the department include Les Trois Vallées (Courchevel, Val Thorens, Méribel); Paradiski (La Plagne, Les Arcs in Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Peisey-Vallandry); the prestigious Espace Killy (Tignes, Val d’Isère); and the Espace Diamant (Flumet, Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe, near Ugine and Megève). There are also more remote ski resorts in Valloire, Valmeinier (in the Maurienne) and Val Cenis.

Ski resorts in the United States and Canada are famously allergic to conservatism, and the American equivalents of Courchevel or Val d’Isère in Colorado are Democratic strongholds. On the other hand, ski resorts in France and the rest of the Alps are strongly right-wing. Little actual research has been done, as far as I know, on this topic, but one of the main differences advanced is that skiing tends to attract a younger and more left-liberal clientele in the Americas (ski bums?) while attracting a middle-age, affluent conservative clientele in France and Europe. Certainly the ski resorts in France are generally quite affluent (especially the ‘prestigious’ ones), and there are a whole lot of secondary residences in those communes. It is doubtful, however, that people who own second homes there would vote there during presidential elections in May. The people who actually vote there are probably employed by the ski resorts or are people who live there year-round.

Whatever the cause of the conservatism of the French ski resorts, it is extremely pronounced and significant. Nicolas Sarkozy won 60% in the larger city of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, but won 79.6% in Saint-Bon-Tarentaise (Courchevel), 79.6% in Val-d’Isère, 66% in Tignes, 76% in Les Allues (Méribel), 73% in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville (Val Thorens), 70% in Valloire, 76.9% in Flumet, 75.7% in Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe, 71% in Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis and 64.7% in Saint-Jean-d’Arves. In 2010, when the UMP in Savoie basically found itself confined to the ski hills, it still won some comparatively huge results in the vast majority of the ski resorts: 70% in Val-d’Isère, 61% in Saint-Bon-Tarentaise, 58% in Les Allues, 59% in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, 58% in Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis, 53% in Flumet or 49.7% in Valloire.

The growth of ski resorts and their right-wing voting habits is the first major cause of the shift to the right in Savoie. In ‘rural’ mountainous Savoie, it has replaced agriculture (largely sheep herding or cattle grazing) or declining light manufacturing as the top employer.

The Maurienne, with a few exceptions (Valloire or Saint-Jean-d’Arves) has not profited as much as the Tarentaise from the ski resorts. The Maurienne has traditionally been a fairly working-class region. The industrial base is fairly diverse, ranging from iron ore mines in Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières to a small chemical industry in La Chambre to light manufacturing activities in La Rochette to aluminium in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to hydroelectric power (la houille blanche) and paper mills around the cité cheminote (a fairly common type of working-class city in France, driven by rail depots or famously left-wing railroad workers) of Modane. But the industrial base of the Maurienne has been in stark decline in recent years, and the region has been aging rather quickly. A RioTinto-Alcan aluminium plant in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is threatened with closing.

Traditionally left-wing, the Maurienne has increasingly flirted with the right and far-right in recent years. The left has retained a hold on a number of smaller working-class villages in the valley, including Fourneaux, Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines and Arvillard, but Nicolas Sarkozy still performed rather well in the Maurienne for a right-wing candidate. He won Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne (56.6%) and La Chambre (59.3%), but both hade preferred Chirac in 1995 as well. He lost Fourneaux, an historic left-wing stronghold, but his 48% were better than Chirac’s 44.9% in 1995. In Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières, a PCF stronghold, he won only 40% but still won 5% more than Chirac in 1995. An aging population, industrial decline and the growth of ski resorts explains the left’s decline in this region.

At a local level, the right ended over 40 years of left-wing dominance in the canton of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne in 2001 and in 2008, the UMP took the town from the left. La Chambre is still ruled by the right and until 2011 the canton was, since 1985, the preserve of right-wing power broker Daniel Dufreney (CNIP) despite having been a PS-PCF battleground since the Liberation. The canton of Aiguebelle, a PCF stronghold, has remained far more resistant, having been held by the PCF, very much dominant in the iron ore mining town of Saint-Georges-d’Hurtières (Robert Hue won it in 2002!), since 1976.

% vote for Lionel Jospin by commune, 1995 runoff (source: lafranceelectorale)

The combe de Savoie and the Tarentaise valley south of Albertville also has its share of working-class areas. I don’t know much about the details of its industrial base, but the railroad from Grenoble likely plays a role in the whereabouts of Montmélian while there is some light manufacturing or random factories, timber mills or railroad depots in working-class areas to the south of Albertville in the Tarentaise (La Bâthie, Cevins, La Léchère, Grignon, Esserts-Blay, Saint-Marcel). Royal performed fairly well in the working-class areas of the Tarentaise, but in 1995, Lionel Jospin had performed strongest in a cohesive chain of towns in the Isère valley, but in 2007, Sarkozy had in good part broken that chain, save a few towns around Montmélian and south of Albertville.

Albertville is a fairly affluent middle-class community with a strong manufacturing base. It voted 54.7% for Sarkozy, but in 1995 it had given Chirac nearly 56% of the vote. Albertville has been shifting to the left in recent years, like the bulk of similarly well-off middle-class professional urban areas in France. In 2008, the PS ended decades of right-wing dominance in the city with a surprise victory over an incumbent UMP mayor. The left won 52% of the vote in the 2010 regional elections. Albertville’s more affluent suburban communities to the north are traditionally strongly right-leaning.

The urban influence of the cities of Albertville and Chambéry has extended in recent years to basically merge the greater influence circles of both cities, transforming the bulk of the Isère valley into lower middle-class suburban or proto-suburban territory with fairly strong and sustained demographic growth. This type of socio-demographic evolution, périurbanisation, is generally politically favourable to the right and especially the FN. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy proved a particularly good candidate for those types of growing middle-class proto-suburbs. It might serve to explain why he broke the left’s old coherent chain of support in the combe de Savoie.

Albertville lies at the confluence of four valleys, including the val d’Arly, a smaller valley smacked between the Bauges and the Beaufortin. The main population centre is Ugine, an industrial city driven by a declining steel industry. Historically one of the left’s main strongholds in Savoie, Ugine and its region has suffered from economic decline and transformations (towards ski resorts in nearby Flumet), and it is no longer the Socialist or Communist stronghold of yesteryear. Lionel Jospin had won 50.3% of the vote in Ugine in 1995, Sarkozy won 55%. It has been governed since 1995 by the right, after having been governed by the left or PCF since 1908.

Chambéry, the largest city and political centre of Savoie, has a weaker and more recent industrial base than other cities. Historically, its economy was largely based around public administration and the military, with its industrial activities (textile, glass, light manufacturing, factories) being more recent. It is a cosmopolitan urban core, with a sizable foreign-born population (largely Italian) and a large student population thanks to a local university. Politically, Chambéry has traditionally leaned to the right, but it has seen a significant shift to the left in recent years. Governed by the right for decades save the 1977-1983 period, PS deputy Louis Besson was elected mayor by the first round in 1989. After a narrow reelection in 2001, he retired in 2007 in favour of Bernadette Laclais, a young regional councillor, who was reelected in a cakewalk by the first round in 2008.

In 1995, Chambéry gave Chirac 53.8% of the vote, but in 2007, Sarkozy lost the city by a hair winning 49.4% of the vote. The city’s clear left-wing inclination was further confirmed in 2010, when the left won 58% of the vote against a paltry 32% for the UMP. But the left in Chambéry, fairly obviously, has a strong Green component: the Greens won 22% of the vote in Chambéry in 2009, against barely 17% for the PS. As the traditionally working-class parts of the department shift towards the right, at least until 2007, the more cosmopolitan middle-class urbanized areas of Chambéry and its immediate surroundings are shifting towards the left.

Save for the less affluent inner suburb of Cognin, Chambéry’s larger suburban communities are largely affluent and right-leaning. Sarkozy won 62% in affluent La Motte-Servolex, 61% in Sonnaz, 58% in Barberaz, 57% in La Ravoire and 57% in Saint-Alban-Leysse. He also won 59% in affluent Bourget-du-Lac, less suburban and driven largely by tourism and with a sizable student population. We might be seeing a slight shift to the left in Chambéry’s inner suburbs, including La Ravoire or Jacob-Bellecombette which has a large student population. Chirac had taken 57% in Jacob-Bellecombette, Sarkozy took only 53% and the Greens did really well in 2009.

The communities which line the Lac du Bourget are all, with a few exceptions, very affluent, a common element for most towns clustered along a small inland lake. Most prominent of these communities is Aix-les-Bains, the department’s second largest city. Affluent, Aix-les-Bain has historically been marked by thermalisme or hydrotherapy. Like the bulk of these French cities with hot springs and spas, it has historically attracted a fortunate, very well-off clientele. Aix is the main right-wing stronghold in western Savoie. Sarkozy won 62%, about the same as Chirac’s 63.5% in 1995. Between 1969 and 1985 and again between 1995 and 2001, Aix was the stronghold of RPR strongman André Grosjean. Political battles at the local level have often opposed the various factions of the right. Grosjean, defeated by UDF deputy Gratien Ferrari in 1989, in turn defeated Ferrari in 1995 before being defeated again in 2001 by DL deputy Dominique Dord, easily reelected in 2008 with 63% while Ferrari won only 9.6%.

Other affluent lakeside communities such as Tresserve (70% Sarkozy), Bourdeau (69%), Brison-Saint-Innocent (62%) or Conjux (60%) have been strongly right-wing in recent years.

The avant-pays savoyard, separated from the separated from the Chambéry area by the southernmost reaches of the Jura, is a largely rural area with small population centres (Yenne, Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin, Saint-Genix-sur-Guiers) concentrated along the rivers which define the department’s boundaries with the Ain and Isère. These towns seem fairly working-class areas, with old declining cités cheminotes such as Saint-Genix or Saint-Béron or larger light manufacturing centres such as Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin. The working-class traditions of these areas are largely historical facts nowadays, as they appear to be poorer areas attracted towards larger middle-sized population poles (Belley, La Tour-du-Pin, Voiron or Chambéry-Aix) by the process of périurbanisation. Some communes lying closer to Chambéry-Aix and connected by a highway to the main population conglomerations of the valley or across the border in Nord-Isère have become suburban or exurban communities, though not as affluent as the older suburbs.

In political terms, some of the older working-class areas had a rather strong left-wing tradition – Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin was a PCF stronghold of sorts for quite some time – but there has been a strong shift to the right in recent years. Nicolas Sarkozy performed well both in affluent proto-suburbs such as Novalaise (60%), lower middle-class exurbs such as Saint-Paul or Saint-Jean-de-Chevelu (59%) and non-suburban population centres with a working-class past such as Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin (56%), Saint-Béron (57.5%), Saint-Genix (62.6%), Saint-Christophe (63%) and Yenne (63%). Chirac, in 1995, had done about as well or even better than Sarkozy in places like Novalaise but Sarkozy outperformed him most in the non-suburban population centres or lower middle-class exurbs.

In 1992, Savoie voted oui to Maastricht with 54% (51% nationally) and in 2005 it voted non to the TCE with 51.4% (55% nationally). Slightly more pro-European than average, these two EU referendums are instructive on their own given the fairly stark class patterns they exhibited. In 1992, the no was triumphant only in the Maurienne (save Saint-Jean), Ugine and parts of the combe and avant-pays. Put simply, working-class areas proved resistant, as did lower middle-class exurbs. The ski resorts were more reserved in their yes votes, likely the impact of a certain reticence by some right-wingers to vote oui to a referendum supported by Mitterrand and the PS as well. But support was high in the urban area of Chambéry-Aix, where affluent and middle-class urbanites confirmed their pro-European inclinations. In 2005, the oui was dominant in the ski resort cantons in the mountains and again in the Chambéry-Aix agglomeration. Ski resorts embraced the oui wholeheartedly, as did most affluent right-wing strongholds across France, while urban areas remained favourably predisposed towards the constitution. Once again, the Maurienne (especially PCF stronghold Aiguebelle) proved the most most Eurosceptic region.

Abstention is about at the national average in Savoie, sometimes above average or below average (as in the 2007 presidential election). It follows the national patterns closely, to highs such as 56.5% abstention in the first round of the regionals in 2010 or lows or 13.8% abstention in the first round of the 2007 election. As is usual in most of France, it is higher in mountainous areas for reasons of remoteness and in urban areas. Rural areas around Chambéry-Aix have tended to turn out in higher numbers, as have parts of the Isère valley.

Partisan Bases of Support

The FN

Savoie has had a major far-right presence for the past twenty or so years, peaking at 19.8% of the vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen on April 21, 2002. Since then, the FN’s performance in Savoie has been far less impressive. Le Pen outperformed his national result by only a few decimals in 2007 and the FN’s 2010 result in Savoie, 14%, was not particularly spectacular. Furthermore, the FN has never really had the institutional impact it had in PACA or even other parts of Rhône-Alpes.

Results of the 2002 presidential election by canton (source: geoclip)

The 2002 cantonal map is rather interesting. Jean-Marie Le Pen dominated the Maurienne, the combe, the Albertville-Ugine valleys and most of western Savoie including the avant-pays. Jacques Chirac, on the other hand, was victorious in the urban centres of Chambéry, Albertville, the ski-driven Tarentaise, affluent La Motte and rural mountainous Le Châtelard.

In the Maurienne, parts of the combe and Albertville-Ugine, Le Pen’s electorate was probably more working-class. He won 24% in Ugine, 27% in Grignon, 22% in La Chambre, 21% in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and 25% in Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. At a more macro cantonal level, his best result was 24.5% in the canton of La Rochette, a small mixed valley-hills/mountain canton with a proletarian tradition. He won 24% in Ugine, boosted both by industrial Ugine and the conservative rural-small resorts of the mountains. He did similarly well in the Maurienne’s cantons, including 21% in Aiguebelle (but he did rather poorly in the PCF stronghold of Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières), 23% in La Chambre and 22% in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. Some of the frontiste vote there in 2002 was probably of the gaucho-lepénisme variant, but in the core left-wing strongholds, Le Pen did rather poorly.

In parts of the Isère valley but also in most of the avant-pays savoyard, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vote was likely more périurbain – lower middle-class exurban or outer suburban with a working-class past. This is basically the type 1-bis FN vote I described in an earlier post on the Le Pen collapse of 2007. As with most type 1-bis areas, the avant-pays or Isère valley is not particularly poor and unemployment tends to be below average, but there is a strong law-and-order/nationalist populist-conservative element in these areas. The proximity to urban areas (Chambéry, Grenoble, Annecy, Nord-Isère and Lyon) which concentrate the “liberal elites” and large immigrant/foreign-born populations also provides a natural boost to the FN vote. Again working at a cantonal level, Le Pen won 22% in Les Echelles, 21% in Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin, 21% in Yenne and 22% in Albens, but also 22% in Saint-Pierre-d’Albigny and 20.5% in Chamoux-sur-Gelon. At a communal level in some communes used as examples earlier, Le Pen won 29.7% in Saint-Christophe-sur-Guiers, 28% in Saint-Béron and 24% in Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin (commune).

His vote in the valley around the lake and Chambéry was not as high (17-20%) but he did take 22% in Aix and 27% in Voglans (a suburb of Chambéry).

Jean-Marie Le Pen lost 9.04% of his 2002 support in 2007. In reverse, Nicolas Sarkozy did 9% better than Chirac-Boutin-Madelin had done in 2002. As in most of Rhône-Alpes and PACA with similar concentrations of type 1/type 1-bis FN voters, Nicolas Sarkozy was very successful in attracting the votes of these voters whose FN was not quite the anti-system protest vote cast by the more working-class FN voters in the north of France. Again, our three fairly homogeneous constituencies do not show wide disparities in the FN change from 2002 to 2007, but Le Pen’s heaviest loss (-9.44%) was in the first constituency (the avant-pays, Aix, Chambéry centre).

In 2010, the FN’s results hardly matched the successes registered by Le Pen in 2002, but the bases were largely similar. Strongest support was in the avant-pays savoyard where type 1-bis voters have returned to the FN fold: 19% in Yenne, 18% in Les Echelles and 16.5% in Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin. In the Maurienne, the FN won 18% in Saint-Michel, 15% in Saint-Jean, 16% in La Chambre and 16.3% in La Rochette. The FN took 16% in Ugine and 17.6% in Albertville-Sud. Results in the urban agglomerations were weak: 10% in Chambéry, 11.6% in Cognin, 13.5% in La Ravoire and 12% in La Motte-Servolex.

The Greens

In the 2009 European elections, the Greens took 19.9% in Savoie and still won 19% in the 2010 regionals. It placed a distant second ahead of the PS, generally outpolling the PS in most of the department’s communes.

Fairly obviously, the Greens performed weakest in the working-class Maurienne and parts of the combe near Albertville. It performed very strongly in the Chambéry metro, taking 22% in the city itself and between 18 and 30% in the bulk of the surrounding communities including 26% in Jacob-Bellecombette, 22% in Le Bourget-du-Lac and 19% in Aix. It also performed fairly strongly – in some cases very strongly – in areas which we can think of as rural or suburban (24% in Le Châtelard, a rural area largely in the Bauges mountains). In those cases, it likely took traditional PS voters but perhaps some younger bobo-types who moved to villages in the mountains or voters concerned by environmental issues (likely a major reason in explaining Savoie’s natural strong greenie inclination). In the Tarentaise, the Greens did rather well, save for the very affluent ski resorts like Val-d’Isère, taking 24% in the canton of Bourg-Saint-Maurice or 22% in Aime.

The correlation is not entirely there, but in good part the Green map looks like a mirror (reverse) image of the FN vote, with weak performances in the Maurienne and the borders where the FN performs well.

The centre

Savoie is not as receptive to centrist candidates of the Christian democratic family as Haute-Savoie is, largely because it is far less clerical than Haute-Savoie. The UDF was never particularly strong in Savoie, though Albertville’s constituency did elect Joseph Fontanet, a long-time MRP bigwig and cabinet minister, between 1956 and 1973. In 1995, Edouard Balladur, whose support was in most cases reflective of that of the UDF, outpolled Jacques Chirac in Savoie, a result perhaps more reflective of Savoie’s more liberal variant of right-wing politics which was represented by Balladur over the more populist Chirac. In 2007, François Bayrou won 20.07% of the vote in Savoie, above his national average. Again, this result is perhaps more reflective of Bayrou’s strong appeal to moderate right-wing voters (of which there are quite a few in Savoie, despite the appearance the strong FN vote creates) of a more social liberal/liberal variant.

Bayrou’s support in Savoie was in good part concentrated in the Chambéry-Aix basin. He won 21.3% in Chambéry and 20.6% in Aix. At a cantonal level, Bayrou achieved 23% support in La Ravoire, 22% in La Motte, 23% in Aix-Nord, 21.4% in Cognin, 23% in Albens and 22% in Albertville-Nord. Bayrou’s strong support in 2007 has hardly translated into a strong base of support for the MoDem since then. At a cantonal level, it holds only Cognin.


The PCF’s results in Savoie have traditionally been very close to the national average. In 1995, Robert Hue won 7.94% of the vote. More recently, the FG won 5.5% in 2009 and 6.6% in 2010. The PCF is left with only a single seat in the general council, its old stronghold of Aiguebelle which it has held since 1976, joined in 2011 by a gain by the PG in La Chambre. At a local level, the PCF is weak in large urban centres but maintains a fairly sizable local infrastructure in rural areas. As previously noted, the small iron ore mining village Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières is a rock-ribbed PCF stronghold.

Like most of those few remaining ancestrally Communist cantons in France, Aiguebelle often continues to give the PCF some nice results in elections to most other levels. In 2009, the FG placed second in the canton of Aiguebelle and first in Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières. In 2010, it gave 20% of the vote to the FG (and 50.3% in Saint-Georges). Saint-Georges-des-Hurtières still votes for the PCF in levels which they haven’t seen elsewhere since the 1950s. It gave 19% of the vote to Marie-George Buffet in 2007!

Elsewhere, the PCF’s support is largely defined by the industrial or working-class areas in the Isère valley and the Tarentaise from Albertville to Moûtiers. In 2010, the FG won 13% in Albertville-Sud (which includes some PCF strongholds such as Cevins, 27% of the vote), 10% in Chamoux-sur-Gelon, 10% in Ugine (14% in Ugine proper) and 9.6% in Moûtiers. The PCF also retains a smaller foothold in its old strongholds in the avant-pays. In the Maurienne, where the PCF used to have a much stronger footing in the 1970s, the PCF can still poll fairly well, usually in its strongholds such as Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines (12% in 2010).

Historical Voting Patterns

Legislative elections in Savoie since 1871

Savoie, which became French only on the late, was traditionally republican during the early days of the Third Republic. In 1871, when the rest of France voted for peace and the monarchists, Savoie narrowly elected a majority of republicans (3-2) to the National Assembly. In the years which followed, Savoie’s single-member constituencies never once elected an anti-republican (monarchist, Bonapartist, nationalist) deputy. It usually preferred moderate opportunist republicans, until 1902 when it started voting Radical (Albertville elected a Catholic rallié). Thus, in the latter parts of the Third Republic, Savoie became a Radical stronghold. In 1906 and 1928, it returned only Radicals. Like Champagne or Eure-et-Loir, Savoie’s radicalism was of the centrist variety, a Radical vote which expressed the republicanism but also the fairly conservative views of smallholders who owned their land rather than a left-wing vote expressing anti-clericalism or anti-system protest. As such, the PRG has had basically no major impact in Savoie and its base is non-existent besides one general councillor.

In 1936, the arrondissement of Chambéry returned two Radicals, including the fairly left-wing ‘Young Turk’ Pierre Cot, while Moûtiers reelected Ugine mayor André Pringolliet (an ex-Socialist, now standing under the ‘republican-socialist’ etiquette). Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne ousted its right-leaning Radical incumbent in favour of a SFIO candidate who was elected on the votes of Aiguebelle, La Chambre and Saint-Jean.

In the post-war years, Savoie elected two Communists (including Pierre Cot, who, while not technically a Communist, affiliated with the PCF) in 1946. But in both those cases, the success was more the result of a common left-wing slate, led by Pierre Cot. The right was dominated by Joseph Delachenal, who had already been elected back in 1910 and 1919. In the 1951 and 1956 elections, in which the PCF stood on its own, it found the bulk of its support in the Maurienne valley (especially La Chambre, Saint-Jean, La Rochette, Aiguebelle) but also Moûtiers, Albertville and Ugine. The right usually dominated the mountains and the west.

Between 1958 and 1973, Savoie was dominated by the right, though by its three families. Joseph Fontanet, a prominent centrist (MRP, later CD) figure and oftentimes a cabinet minister, dominated the Tarentaise and Albertville. Jean Delachenal, the son of Joseph Delachenal and a member of the CNIP and later a giscardien, dominated the constituency centered around Chambéry and Aix. Finally, the Maurienne was dominated by Pierre Dumas, the young Gaullist mayor of Chambéry (1959-1977, 1983-1989).

In 1973, Savoie elected two PS deputies: Louis Besson in Chambéry-Aix and Jean-Pierre Cot in the Maurienne. Only Fontanet survived, but in 1974, Fontanet (trying to return to his old seat after leaving cabinet) was defeated in a by-election by a PS candidate, Maurice Blanc, who would be the only Socialist to represent Albertville. In 1978, Michel Barnier, a young RPR leader, defeated Blanc in the Tarentaise, but Besson and Cot were reelected in narrow contests. In 1981, however, all three were reelected by large margins.

In 1986, through PR, Savoie elected two right-wingers: Barnier and Gratien Ferrari (UDF), leaving Louis Besson in the third seat. In 1988, the PS’ Roger Rinchet was elected in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, while Besson and Barnier returned to their old seats. In 1993, Gratien Ferrari (UDF) was hindered in his quest to defeat Besson’s PS right-hand man Jean-Paul Calloud by the candidacy of the RPR’s Jean-Pierre Vial, although he was ultimately successful. In 1997, Dominique Dord (UDF-DL) was elected fairly easily in Ferrari’s old constituency of Chambéry-Aix. In the Maurienne, the RPR’s Michel Bouvard faced a tougher race but won by 1400 votes. In Albertville, Hervé Gaymard (RPR) was elected by a fairly anemic margin in the safest seat for the right. In 2002 and 2007, all three incumbents won fairly simple reelections. In 2007, only Bouvard struggled a bit against the PS mayor of Chambéry, Bernadette Laclais. In 2012, Laclais is likely in good shape to win the fairly left-leaning new fourth constituency centered around her base of Chambéry. It could also be in a strong position to take the third constituency.