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How the French elections work

Since President Sarkozy was elected in 2007, France has held six elections, at different levels of government

It seems hardly a year goes by without President Sarkozy getting a warning message from French voters via an election that does not directly involve him.

This is not merely an impression; it is actually the case: since the president’s election in May 2007, France has held six different elections.

The latest, the cantonal elections, is the last before France’s presidential elections in 2012. While the strong support for the Front National has caught the headlines, these elections are actually for half of the councillors who sit on the conseils généraux, and their positions are due to be scrapped in 2014.

So what are the different elections?

The presidential election
Last held May 2007

This is the race for the head of state. Since 2000, it takes place every five years (before it was seven) and, as a result of constitutional amendments introduced by Nicolas Sarkozy, a president can only serve two terms. To stand, you need to be a French citizen, and must be at least 23 years old. You must also obtain the signatures of 500 elected officials (with the added complication that they must come from at least 30 departments and no more than 10 per cent can be from the same department).

Legislative elections
Last held June 2007

These are for seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament. There are 577 MPs (députés) and, as in the UK, each is elected in his own constituency. Elections are held every five years, or following the dissolution of the National Assembly.

Senatorial elections
Last held September 2010

These are not conducted through universal suffrage. France has 346 senators, elected roughly three to each department by a departmental electoral college consisting of regional councillors elected in that department, general councillors and delegates from municipal authorities within the department. Senators are elected for six years, but elections are staggered so that half the Senate is re-elected every three years.

European elections
Last held June 2009

Expat voters from EU member states can vote in France (but not if they wish to vote in the UK: you only get one vote). In line with all other member states, and unlike other elections in France, votes are counted according to proportional representation. The elections are held every five years.

Regional elections
Last held March 2010

Regional councillors were elected every six years, but as of their last election their mandate will end in 2014, when they will be replaced with new territorial councillors. Rather than individual candidates and constituencies, voters choose between party lists.

Each party puts forwards a list of their candidates with their favourites at the top but split up so that each candidate also represents a department in the region. The party with the winning list, be it from the first round or second round, immediately gets one quarter of the available seats on the regional council. All lists are then considered and the remaining seats are split proportionally, according to how many votes each list received.

In the second round, a party whose list got at least 10 per cent can negotiate to merge candidates with another list. (This could be good for both parties if by merging they can make their list the winner and gain the extra quarter of the seats).

Cantonal elections
Last held March 2011

These elections are for councillors who sit on the conseil général for each department. Like regional councillors, this position is also due to be replaced in 2014. They take place every three years, with half the council being elected. Each candidate stands in his own ward and the election takes place in two rounds. Candidates gaining more than 12.5 per cent of the vote are able to stand in the second round, but there is only one winner.

Municipal elections
Last held 2008

The way these work depends on the size of the commune. Party lists are used at all levels, but with greater flexibility for the voter to pick and choose different candidates in smaller communes. For communes larger than 3,500 people, the system is less flexible. Non-French nationals from the EU are allowed to vote in these elections.

The winning list, be it first or second round, secures half the seats of the local council. The remaining seats are then redistributed proportionally across all the lists. Like regional elections, lists can be modified before the second round, with parties that gained at least 10 per cent able to merge their candidates into other lists.

The rules are slightly different in Paris, Marseille and Lyon, where arrondissements and secteurs come into play. Once the local authorities are elected, they vote on their mayor.

Two rounds

French elections always take place on Sunday. If no candidate or list gains an absolute majority (50 per cent), a second round is held. In the presidential election, only the top two candidates from the first round are able to compete. In other elections, lists or candidates that gained too few votes are disqualified from standing, narrowing the field in the second round.

This system encourages a diverse range of political opinions and characters in the first round, while ensuring that the final outcome gives a strong mandate to the winner.

Photo: Paty Wingrove -

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