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ANALYSIS: What will happen in France’s local elections and should they even be taking place?

Sunday's upcoming municipal elections will be a confusing snapshot of the state of political opinion in France and a poor guide to prospects for the next presidential election in 2022, writes John Lichfield.

ANALYSIS: What will happen in France's local elections and should they even be taking place?
France's municipal elections will go ahead as planned on Sunday - although slightly differently than normal. Photo: AFP

In the midst of its greatest health crisis for more than a century, France will go ahead with the world’s largest and most complex exercise in local democracy this Sunday.

And that’s just the first round. Voters are expected to turn out again next weekend to choose mayors and councils in 35,000 cities, towns and villages – by which time the coronavirus epidemic will be much worse.

Who is to say whether it was the right decision by President Emmanuel Macron to allow the municipal elections to proceed? If he had cancelled or suspended the poll, he would have been accused of running scared of the voters rather than the virus.

The turnout, already poor in local elections in France, is likely to be reduced. Older voters, usually the most reliable of democrats, will think twice before leaving the homes in which Macron ordered them to shelter during Thursday night’s TV address.

An already opaque election is likely to become an even more confusing snapshot of the state of political opinion in France and a poor guide to prospects for the next presidential election in 2022.

But that won’t stop pundits, both knowledgeable and less knowledgeable, from proclaiming their opinions. Here is a brief and cautious guide to what to look out for on Sunday and in the decisive second round on 22 March (if it happens).

The results will, overall, be embarrassing for Macron and his three years old centrist party, La République en Marche (LREM). There may be one or two local triumphs – in Le Havre or Strasbourg –  but LREM, the party of government, is running third or fourth in many large towns and cities or not running its own lists of candidates at all.

LREM party member Agnès Buzyn was France's health minister, but she left the post (and the coronavirus) to join the race to become the next mayor of Paris. Photo: AFP

The results will partly reflect Macron’s unpopularity after a bruising 18 months of street protests and contested social and economic reforms. They will also expose the President’s failure to turn his centrist revolution of 2017 into a grass-roots political movement – both nationally and locally.

One senior LREM figure told me: “We are like a small start-up that is trying to run Microsoft. We just don’t yet have the numbers and quality of people and institutional expertise to create a political party from the bottom up – or the top down.”

Paris, a hot-bed of Macronism in 2017 and in the European elections last year, was supposed to be LREM’s saving grace. The party’s first candidate, Benjamin Griveaux, already struggling, imploded in a sex scandal last month. His replacement, the former health minister, Agnes Buzyn, is doing a little better but has found no miracle cure.

ANALYSIS: Does the Griveaux scandal mean it's now open season on French politicians' sex lives?

As things stand, the unpopular Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, looks like she will have enough allies to win re-election after the second round. However, the former Sarkozy-era justice minister, Rachida Dati, widely mocked a couple of years ago, has fought an unexpectedly good campaign. There is a small chance that she will come out top on 22 March.

Les Républicain's Rachida Dati, close aide of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, is aiming to become the next mayor of Paris. Photo: AFP

Elsewhere, the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has parachuted back into Le Havre, where he was a very popular mayor, to try to give Macron at least one headline victory. The campaign in the Channel port city is not going as swimmingly as Philippe expected but he should win on Sunday week.

Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National hopes that the local elections will confirm her position as the most plausible challenger to Macron in 2022. But the RN, strapped for money and competent candidates, has concentrated its resources in only 300 towns and cities – a big drop on the last local election in 2014.

The RN will hold the dozen town halls it runs. It will almost certainly capture Perpignan in the south west, where Le Pen’s estranged boy-friend Louis Aliot is running for mayor. The far-right party is running strongly in Avignon but probably not enough to win in the second round.

The true importance of the election for the far-right will be the number of council seats it gains – boosting Le Pen’s chances of winning Senate seats in September when half of the upper house will be re-elected, not be ordinary voters but by other elected officials.

The performance of the Greens – EELV or Europe Ecologie Les Verts – will also be interesting. With other left or “progressive” parties feeble and scattered, the Greens may provide the strongest challenger to Macron from the left in 2022.

France will be headed for the polls on Sunday, as the country tries to grapple with the coronavirus epidemic. Photo: AFP

Green-led lists are currently leading the polls in Grenoble and Rouen and placed second in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Dijon and Metz. If confirmed, this represents a big Green breakthrough in local politics in France. There have been Gallic green dawns before but the implications for 2022 – with the rest of the Left so weak – are fascinating.

Small wonder that Macron has said he will devote much of the remaining two years of his mandate to environmental issues.

To boost their chances of gate-crashing the Macron-Le Pen rivalry in 2022, the centre-right Les Républicains (party of Sarkozy and Chirac) also need a strong showing in the municipal elections after a disastrous outcome (8%) in the European elections last spring. The same applies to the Socialists (party of Mitterrand and Hollande) who are struggling to survive as a serious force in national politics, squeezed by both Macron to their right and splinter parties to their left.

Local government in France beats to a different, more repetitive drum than national politics. Even the Communist Party, which vanished long ago as a national player, retains municipal fiefdoms in the Paris suburbs and the fringes of other conurbations.

READ ALSO From urban forests to armed city police – the possible new faces of Paris

There will probably be centre-right victories in Marseille, Nice, Toulouse and Bordeaux and Socialist victories in Lille and Dijon. But there will be nothing to indicate a strong resurgence of France’s once traditional “parties of government.”

In other words, the likely results in big cities will neatly illustrate the opacity of municipal elections as a guide to the national mood.

What to make of a poll which leaves France with Socialist mayors in Paris, Lille, Dijon and Brest; centre-right mayors in Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Nice; “Macronist” mayors in Le Havre and Strasbourg;  and a green mayor in Grenoble and maybe Rouen?

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ANIMAL WELFARE

How to adopt a pet from a French animal shelter

Around 300,000 pets are abandoned every year in France, many of them during the summer months. So if you're looking for a pet there are many lovely cats and dogs in shelters looking for a good home - here's how to go about it.

How to adopt a pet from a French animal shelter

Where to look

French animal welfare charity the Société Protectrice des Animaux (SPA) is an excellent place to start – it currently lists nearly 4,500 animals available for adoption. 

But there are lots of other smaller, local organisations – it may be worthwhile dropping in to see a local vet as they will generally know of local groups seeking homes for abandoned pets.

There will be paperwork

First-time buyers of cats or dogs have to sign a ‘certificate of commitment and understanding’ before they will be allowed to buy an animal, and the same applies to those looking to adopt. 

After the signed document is delivered to the authorities, future owners have seven days to change their mind – the idea is to prevent people from ‘impulsively’ buying or adopting pets only to abandon them later. 

The SPA, certainly, demands that would-be adopters are of legal age and are willing to take part in a “responsible adoption process”.

These things take time – as you should expect for a commitment that can last more than a decade. As the SPA website says, it seeks to ensure “that each decision is carefully considered and that the adopted animal matches its new family and way of life”.

The process may include home visits, interviews and discussions to help adopters find the animal to which they are best suited – older people may not cope well with an energetic puppy, for example.

READ ALSO What you need to know about owning a dog in France

Shelter animals

Some welfare organisations ensure their animals spend some time with ‘foster families’ until they are adopted. This means that the organisation has a pretty good idea how that animal is likely to behave when it gets to its new adopted home.

It is more difficult to judge an animal’s character if it has been kept in a pen in a shelter.

It will cost money

A financial contribution will most likely be requested by the organisation from which you are adopting. The sum will depend on the age and type of animal being adopted. 

The SPA, for example, asks for a donation to cover vets’ fees of between €250 and €300 for a dog, depending on its age, and €150 for a cat or a kitten.

Another well-known animal welfare organisation in France, Les Amis des Animaux, has a slightly different scale of fees covering the cost of chipping, vaccinations – including rabies/passport in mature animals, sterilisation, worming, et cetera. 

READ ALSO What you need to know about microchipping your pet in France

What else you need to know

Under French law, pet dogs – and cats and ferrets – over a certain age must be identified and registered on a national database. 

The animal must be identifiable by a tattoo or microchip – the latter is the most common method these days – that is registered on the Identification des carnivores domestiques (I-CAD) database

The procedure to insert the microchip, or ink the tattoo, must be carried out by an approved professional. The procedure should be done by a vet and costs between €40 and €70, the shelter will tell you whether your new pet already has a microchip or not.

You might not believe it if you have walked along certain streets in Paris, but you can be fined if you fail to pick up after your pet. 

The standard fine is €68, but the mayors of some towns have imposed stricter rules in the street, in parks, gardens and other public spaces. 

The French government’s Service Public website lists other rules regarding the health and wellbeing of pets. Read it here.

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