By Ed Coughlin, Former Minneapolis and Tours Sister Cities Board Member
Replacing a mayor without calling a special election
THE RECENT CASE IN THE CITY OF TOURS
Holding More Than One Elective Office
The sitting mayor of Tours, Serge Babary, was elected to the Senate at the end of September with official results being declared at the beginning of October. Until this year, a mayor could be both senator and mayor at the same time. A new law took effect this year requiring a mayor to step down as city executive in order to serve as senator. He or she may still remain on the city council but cannot serve as mayor. Therefore, Serge Babary announced his resignation resulting in the calling of a special session of the city council to vote for a new mayor within 15 days. During that period, the First Adjoint (vice-mayor), Jacques Chevtchenko, assumed the duties as mayor.
Size of a City Council
Unlike the United States where each community has its own city charter which sets forth how the community will be governed, France has specific rules that apply to all communities based on population. Only Paris, Marseille and Lyon have exceptions to those rules.
Tours, with 135,000 inhabitants, must have a 55-seat city council.
The mayor is one of those 55 members and elected to the office of mayor at the first session of a new city council. In addition to the mayor, there are vice-mayors called “adjoints” who are delegated specific duties in areas such as public safety, education, culture, parks & gardens, etc. Here each city is allowed discretion in determining the number of its “adjoints”, not to exceed 30% of the council. Tours has voted to have 16 adjoints…not counting an additional five with neighborhood related duties.
MUNICIPAL ELECTION PROCESS
Municipal elections took place throughout France in 2014 with the next elections set for 2020 (but they may be postponed until 2021).
Voters must select from among slates of candidates referred to in French as listes. There are 55 names on each liste with the top name presumed to be a candidate for mayor. The seats on the city council are filled on a proportional basis by those named on any listes with more than 5% of the vote in the deciding round of the election. Names on each liste must alternate by gender and the seats are filled starting with the top of the liste.
Under the proportional method used to fill the council seats, the liste with the most votes in the deciding round of the election will get well more than one-half the seats, providing the mayor with a governing “majority” and severely limiting the role of the “opposition.” The group in power are referred to as La Majorité since the mayor and that group should be able to call the shots if they remain united.
The 2014 election in Tours as an illustration of how the process works
Since this article is about replacing a mayor, I’ll skip over some of the details of municipal elections.
Voters in the first round of the election selected from among nine pre-printed listes, inserting just one into the envelope which would be cast into the ballot box. Any changes to the 55 names on the pre-printed liste would invalidate the ballot. There is no such concept as splitting a ticket.
After the first round, no one liste received an absolute majority. Four listes were eligible to move into the second round the following Sunday (a relatively rare occurrence). Before the second round, on Monday and Tuesday, the liste of the incumbent Socialist mayor, Jean Germain, merged with a liste from the Green Party in order to improve their electability. Voters had three listes to choose from in the second round.
In the second round, the liste with the most votes is the winner. A majority is not required. Any liste with more than 5% of the vote is entitled to share in the seats on the council. I suppose you could say that there are Silver and Bronze medals.
Serge Babary ran on a liste which presented a united front from the outset. He is a member of the LR Party (formerly the UMP party of both Chirac and Sarkozy) and he partnered with members of the more centrist UDI Party. They wanted one consistent message throughout the entire campaign and avoid splitting their base of support against what was considered by many to be the invincible liste headed by Jean Germain. The last-minute merger between Jean Germain’s primarily Socialist (PS) liste and the Green Party liste did not achieve its desired result. They came in second with the Front National gaining enough votes to garner two seats on the council.
The actual results were as follows:
Head of Liste Parties Votes % Seats
Serge Babary UMP-UDI 20,770 49.75 42
Jean Germain PS-PCF-EELV-MoDem 17,398 41.67 11
Gilles Godefroy FN 3,576 8.56 2
Although the leading listes both won over 40% of the vote, and despite the fact that the top vote getter did not get an outright majority, the modified proportional allocation formula gave 42 of the 55 seats to the liste led by Serge Babary (LR).
In order to ensure that the leading liste has a secure majority there is a two-step process in the calculation. The first step gave a majority of 28 seats (50% +1) to the first-place finisher. The second step allocated the remaining seats as a proportion of the vote totals. This gave an additional 14 seats to the leading ticket. Clearly the system is designed to give the first-place liste a substantial Majorité.
When the city council meets for the first time, the entire council votes for the new mayor. With 42 votes, there is little doubt about who will win.
The next step is to vote on the number of Adjoint positions to create and then take a vote on filling them. When the listes were being drawn up, discussions took place about who would serve where in the city government. The jockeying for position should have ended before the liste became public. The top names on the liste of the Majorité (except for the number two name, Sophie Auconie, who was serving in the European Parliament) were elected by the council to fill the adjoint positions. The structure of the listes assures gender equality so that you would expect eight men and eight women to be adjoints or adjointes. There were no surprises. With 42 votes and fresh from a victory, the result was assured.
HOW DOES ALL THIS IMPACT FILLING VACANCIES?
Listes do not disappear. Until the next general election, they continue to be the resource used to fill seats in case of vacancy. If vacancies occur, whether due to illness, death, moving to a new city, etc., they are filled by the next names on the respective liste. For example, if one of the two FN seats were to become vacant, it would be filled from the FN liste from 2014 in the order that the names appeared. The Majorité could not gobble up a seat from the FN. The FN has two seats until the next general election.
HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO REPLACING THE MAYOR?
The new mayor is selected by a vote of a special session of the city council. It should, in theory, fall to the Majorité to select its candidate to replace the mayor, and, with 42 votes, there should be no surprises.
In Tours, the Majorité formulated a procedure for selecting its candidate and all the members signed onto it. Individuals could nominate themselves prior to what looked like a papal conclave (no cell phones and no reporters inside the room).
Each candidate would give a 15-minute presentation (which was modified to 30 minutes). Candidates could not be present during the other candidates’ presentations. That was followed by a first round secret ballot. If no one got a majority there would be a second round where the leading candidate (in the case of three or more) would win. If two candidates had the same number of votes, the older of the two would be selected.
In Tours, Christophe Bouchet and Xavier Dateu ran for the office. Thibault Coulon withdrew from consideration and never formally entered the race. Since Dateu was touted as the frontrunner, Coulon was perceived as throwing his support in favor of Bouchet. The results of both rounds of voting were 20-20 with two abstentions. Bouchet was the older of the two and declared the winner.
The evening before the special session of the city council, Xavier Dateu announced that he was going to put himself forward as a candidate. There was some confusion in his mind over whether there should have been a third round prior to going to the “tie-breaker.” That led to much speculation over the internal discipline of the Majorité and even whether there would be mass resignations.
THE SPECIAL SESSION ELECTION
There were no significant surprises.
Both names were put before the city council. The spokesperson for the Left announced that they would abstain from voting since they believed that the process was flawed and that there should have been a special election called to put the question before the citizens.
Whereas one would have expected “the system” to produce 42 votes in favor of one candidate (Serge Babary would still have a vote since he has kept his seat on the council) the results of the secret ballot were as follows:
Christophe Bouchet 30
Xavier Dateu 15
The Majorité did not line up squarely behind their candidate. He only got 30 of 42 votes but enough to easily win the election.
Since there was a total of 45 votes cast for one of the two candidates, the winner needed a majority of 23. Christophe Bouchet was voted in as mayor.
At that point he presided over the special session, taking over from the most senior (age) member of the council who was the opening presider.
On a show of hands, the number of adjoints was fixed at 16 (no change in number).
A new liste of candidates for adjoint was provided to the council members (prepared in advance by Christophe Bouchet) and it was approved by secret ballot.
The specific functions of each adjoint are not determined by a council vote but announced later in the week.