--Le Monde is reporting that the UMP-UDF (France's mainstream Right) has suffered a set-back in the first round of regional elections. The Socialists, Communists and Greens are estimated to have won 40% of the vote. Le Pen's Front National has won almost 20%.
--Most polls have now closed in France, and the voter turnout at around 7 PM French time was estimated at around 60%, slightly higher than the 1998 elections. The first results should be reported in a few hours.
--As of noon, the percentage of electors voting in regional elections was 18.09%--0.8% higher than at this time in 1998. The percentage of electors voting in cantonal elections was 17.29%--1.35% lower than at this time in 1998. Voting stations will close at 6 PM in most areas.
Here is some background on the regional elections process: Over 17,000 candidates are competing in this first round of elections (the second will be held next Sunday for certain posts), with 50% men and 50% women on the ballots, as required by French law. The average age of UMP candidates is 49, compared to 45 among the Socialists.
Regional Councilors are elected for six years by direct suffrage, and a proportional election system is used. In cantonal elections, General Councilors are elected by direct suffrage for a term of six years by absolute majority (single member), with one Councillor for each canton (a canton being a grouping of municipalities). Thus for the cantonal elections, the candidate or candidates obtaining the most votes are elected (think US congressional election). By contrast, in regional elections, the voters vote for "lists" (generally arranged according to party), and the regional councilors are divided up among the lists or parties in proportion to the number of votes obtained by each. Consequently, although I stated above that there are 17,000 candidates in both regional and cantonal elections, it would be more accurate to specify that 12,302 candidates are competing for 2,304 seats in the cantonal elections. Meanwhile, there are 234 lists competing in the first round of the regional elections.
The primary consequence of choosing a majority or proportional electoral system is that, in majority systems, large parties are advantaged and small parties disadvantaged. As a result, minority voting interests obtain only indirect, approximate representation, and majority systems tend to create two-party systems. In contrast, systems of proportional representation may guarantee both large and small parties representation proportional to their electoral strength. However because almost every vote under the proportional representation system actually does count, it presents the risk of being unworkable because so many different parties may be elected. For more technical details of this electoral system, there is an English translation of a Maurice Duverger piece here. In addition, for a good English-language perspective on the issues at stake in the French regional elections, go here.