By Michael Ward
It is commonly remarked by French political commentators that the French “aiment leur maire” or “love their mayors”. A poll earlier this year showed that the local mayor was commonly seen as the most trustworthy political figure by the French electorate. Unlike many second order elections, local elections or Élections Municipales in France attract very respectable turnouts (higher for example than turnout for parliamentary elections) and come second only to presidential elections in terms of voter engagement.
Nevertheless, France’s local elections, in 2020 will not be remembered as a classic of the genre. The first round which took place in March in the middle of the initial Coronavirus upsurge saw turnout collapse by almost 18 percentage points and the second round was subsequently postponed indefinitely, leaving all qualified candidates in the lurch. Three months later, the second round was finally held over the weekend and saw turnout drop further, with only 40.5% of voters daring to go the polls, despite requirements for facemasks, social distancing, and copious amounts of sanitising hand gel.
These elections offered both an opportunity and a risk for President Emmanuel Macron, in advance of his re-election campaign in 2022. The party which he founded had shown that it could win national elections but lacked that crucial local networks that come with winning and running local councils. Building and embedding such networks would be necessary in order to ensure that La République En Marche would have a life after Macron and show that its survival as a political player is not intimately tied to Macron’s own political future.
If this was the aim, then the results are hardly encouraging. Certainly, Macron’s current Prime Minister, former centre-right deputy Édouard Philippe, managed to hold his own local bastion of Le Havre (though he failed to win it outright in the first round), meaning that Macron is not obliged to dismiss him (though he may well do that anyway). However, embarrassingly, Macron’s former Interior Minister and erstwhile ally Gérard Collomb could not stop the wealthy centrist bastion of Lyon falling to a Green Party-led coalition, while Macron’s official candidate in Paris came a humiliating (though entirely expected) third place. Both cities had been key constituencies of La Macronie in 2017, where a wealthy, upwardly mobile, and highly educated electorate turned out in big numbers to vote for the president.
In other parts of France, La République En Marche suffered for its lack of existing networks and resources, and was forced to ally with existing politicians of the centre-left and centre-right, thereby undermining its claim to be a separate force in the French political landscape. One such example was Toulouse where a Macron backed Mayor from the centre-right held on. Across the country, traditionally strong incumbency factors saw longstanding incumbents return to power, though not everywhere (more on this anon).
Nevertheless, factors relating to pre-existing organisational weaknesses are not the only things that should concern the President in advance of 2022. The elections saw the core Macron constituency, high-educated, urban middle-class professionals, turn towards the Green Party which saw notable successes in middle class cities like Lyon, Montpellier, Grenoble, and Bordeaux. In Paris, the Socialist Mayor has long courted the green vote and it played an integral role in her crushing re-election win.
This may prompt a strategic re-think in the Élysée Palace. Macron owed his election in 2017 to soft centre-left and socially liberal voters, whom he courted assiduously as a minister under François Hollande. Having reduced the traditional centre-left to rubble, Macron proceeded to shift to the centre-right when in Government, appointing key ministers from centre-right parties and pursuing policies on security, law and order, and public sector reform that were designed to appeal to their voters. In the 2019 European Election, it was estimated that Macron had successfully replaced every centre-left vote he lost with an equivalent vote from the centre-right.
The logic of this strategy would appear to be about assuring a total domination of the centre ground. As a result, Macron would be more likely to face a candidate from the extreme left or extreme right in the second round of the 2022 Presidential Election, ensuring his victory by default.
However, the results from the 2020 Municipal Elections suggests that the centre-left is not as moribund as many may have thought. And its current incarnation has a distinctly green hew. While success in local elections is no guarantee of similar success in Presidential elections, the rise of the Greens (Europe Écologie Les Verts), particularly among the middle class voters in wealthy cities like Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Lyon, (all now led by Green Party Mayors for the first time) and Paris is a reminder that Macron cannot take his left flank for granted. The President has spent much of the last year trying to project action on the climate change issue, setting up a Citizen’s Assembly to propose carbon emission reduction strategies. However, the controversy that greeted his carbon tax policy and the resignation of two environment minister since 2017 (one during a live radio interview) did little to engender confidence that his Government was effectively tackling the issue. The increased salience of the issue both in France and globally gave impetus to the rising support of the Greens.
The Greens also present a problem for their traditional political big brother – the much maligned Parti Socialiste. Where the two were in alliance, such as in Paris, Rennes, Nantes, and more spectacularly Marseilles – where the left has been in abeyance for decades – results were very strong indeed. However, where they were in competition, such as Strasbourg and Lille, the Greens made serious inroads, taking control of the former and just missing out on the latter – a traditional bastion of socialist support – by 227 votes. Results like these increase the leverage of the Green Party within the broader centre-left coalition and may give succour to the argument that the Parti Socialiste should support a Green candidate for the presidential election in 2022.
For the centre-right, still leaderless and lacking direction, the traditional dominance of local party cadres in small and medium towns in municipal elections maintains the extensive network of local representation that has long existed and makes up for the loss of Bordeaux which had been in centre-right hands for decades. On the far-right Marine Le Pen’s newly renamed Rassemblement National and its allies posted several electoral advances (taking control of the city of Perpignan for the first time with over 50% of the vote for Marine’s ex-partner – now the largest French urban area currently run by the far-right) that are counterbalanced by the party’s complete isolation on the political scene. Without willing allies, it is forced into opposition in most municipalities, despite its strong results.
If Macron, in particular, has learned anything from this experience it is that creating a party might be one thing but building the local networks which ensure a party can have a life beyond its founder is a higher order challenge altogether. However, the more pressing concern might be how to reassemble the electoral conditions that carried him to the Élysée in the first place. In an era of climate crisis and Black Lives Matter, social issue movements are becoming more independent of party politics. Macron benefitted from being the new agent of change in 2017. It would be remiss of him to take this support for granted.
Image © Rémi Jouan via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emmanuel_Macron_(7).JPG)