Five takeaways from France's local elections: Green wave, Macron, far-right, turnout and key divides
Sunday’s local election results from France brought jubilation for the main green party and left-wing allies, as they swept to victory in several large cities.
Their success puts more pressure on Emmanuel Macron to address environmental concerns ahead of the 2022 presidential race.
But a low turnout and a more nuanced picture in the nation at large mean the political outlook remains uncertain in France, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic and consequent economic damage.
Here are five things to note from the election outcome:
‘Green wave’ establishes new opposition force
The greens have established themselves as a major political opposition force in France, with notable victories in several major cities including Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg. They also played a significant part in the re-election of the socialist mayor in Paris and helped propel the left into pole position in Marseille.
Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV) kept control of Grenoble and also won a host of other cities including Montpellier, Besançon, Annecy and Poitiers.
The green success includes victories in cities that traditionally have been bastions of the political right: in Bordeaux, the right-wing had been in control since 1947, while Lyon was a similar stronghold until it was captured by the socialists in 2001. But they also showed they can win in traditionally left-wing cities, such as Poitiers.
Analysts are seeing it as a turning point for the environmentalists, as the concerns of metropolitan residents over matters such as pollution, congestion, climate and social issues come to the fore.
Their success represents a huge leap in progress from last year’s European elections when they won nearly 13.5% of the vote and is a world away from the presidential election of 2017 when the green candidate withdrew to support the doomed socialist contender.
However, the results bring a note of caution for the greens as their success in larger cities was not broadly repeated in smaller towns.
Macron’s movement downed by infighting and unpopular alliances
Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017 with the help of support from voters in France’s big cities, as well as the collapse of the traditional right- and left-wing parties.
However, three years on his movement La République en March (LREM) — which was already struggling to embed itself locally around the country — failed to capture any of the large metropolitan areas where the president will need significant voter support at the next election.
LREM was not helped by bouts of infighting. In Paris, Macron dissident Cédric Villani failed in his bid for a place on the city council — but ensured that he dragged the government-backed candidate down with him. Agnès Buzyn only came third with 13.5% of the vote.
In Lyon, the centrist vote was also split between two camps, while longstanding mayor Gérard Collomb antagonised many by forming a second-round alliance with the main right-wing party Les Républicains (LR). He lost the backing first of the LREM hierarchy, and then the voters.
Although an LREM-backed LR candidate held on to win in Toulouse, a similar arrangement also failed to impress the electorate in Clermont-Ferrand, where another LREM-LR alliance lost to a left-wing coalition.
“The lesson for LREM seems clear to me: the future of progressiveness is not in sad alliances with the hard right,” Matthieu Orphelin, a former member of Macron’s ruling group in the French parliament,” said in a statement. “On the contrary, LREM should turn around towards ecology.”
Having veered to the right in the first half of his presidential term, Macron had already been tipped to concentrate more on social and environmental issues in the remaining two years of his mandate. Such a trend is likely to be accelerated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and these election results.
The president’s unpopularity contrasts sharply with that of the French prime minister. Edouard Philippe, praised for his handling of the pandemic, won almost 60% of the vote to be elected as mayor in the northern city of Le Havre. He can name a replacement if he decides to stay on in government.
Far-right fails to make inroads despite success in the south
“A really great victory… A real boost” was how Marine Le Pen described the performance of her Rassemblement National movement (formerly Front National) after it won control of a city of more than 100,000 people for the first time.
But although Le Pen hailed the RN’s victory in Perpignan as proof that her party is “capable of managing large authorities”, results overall were disappointing.
Although it held on to eight out of 10 councils it had won in 2014, it lost the only town it controlled in the Paris region, as well as another municipality in the south.
The RN won a few other towns in the south, but the results illustrate that it is finding it hard to break out of its strongholds at either end of the country — something that will be of concern to Macron’s rival in the last presidential run-off, with under two years to go until the 2022 election.
France divided between larger cities and poorer areas
The local election results confirm a stark division between France’s larger, more prosperous metropolitan conurbations — and smaller towns, peripheral areas and many parts of the countryside which are far poorer.
President Macron and his LREM majority are under pressure to respond to the green concerns of city dwellers — but 18 months ago his energy transformation programme came under sustained attack from the “Gilets Jaunes” (“Yellow Vest”) movement when hostility to likely fuel price hikes resulting from a planned carbon tax erupted into widespread unrest.
The challenge for the EELV greens — aside from putting ambitious programmes into practice in their newly-won cities — will be to convert this electoral urban wave into a lasting, nationwide movement.
Vincent Tiberj, a researcher in electoral sociology and professor at Sciences Po Bordeaux, told France Info radio that they will have to win over more sceptical groups such as blue-collar workers and those finding it hard to make ends meet.
“All are not necessarily irreconcilable. But it’s going to demand a real job of education,” he said. “If not, they will find themselves in a corner as before, some will take it upon themselves to sum them up as punitive environmentalists who please only one privileged class.”
Poor turnout creates wider uncertainty
Only four-in-ten people voted in Sunday’s election second round, postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak after the first round in March. Many are thought to have been put off from going to polling stations because of the pandemic; many have also long been disillusioned with the French political scene.
The poor turnout in a country where abstention is usually much less prevalent makes it harder to draw conclusions concerning the national picture in the longer term.
“(The greens) should keep in their heads (the fact) that they won with a 60% abstention rate,” Vincent Tiberj said.
There are signs from President Macron’s own circle that the low level of enthusiasm is as worrying as the green surge.
“There can be no message of national impact in a local ballot which only shifted 35 to 40% of French people,” senior LREM figure Pierre Person said as quoted in Le Monde. The president himself is said to be concerned at the high abstention rate and what it says for the state of French democracy.