EXPLAINED: Why France’s local elections are likely to be a bad day for Macron

This week sees the long-delayed second round of local elections in France, and president Emmanuel Macron's party is facing a rout at the polls.

EXPLAINED: Why France's local elections are likely to be a bad day for Macron
Photo: AFP

What's happening on Sunday?

It is the delayed second round of municipal elections across France. Like presidential elections, local elections in France follow a two-round voting process. The first round was on March 15th but the second – set for March 22nd – was postponed because of the lockdown.

The rescheduled second round takes place on Sunday, June 28th.

The elections are to choose local officials, from village mayors to top jobs like the mayors of Paris and Marseille. In many smaller places candidates were elected outright in the first round, but on Sunday larger towns and cities will hold the second round of voting.

READ ALSO What you need to know about France's (very complicated) municipal elections

Why is this bad for Macron?

Because his party is expected to do badly.

The local elections don't directly affect the government or the president, but heavy losses of the president's party will certainly weaken his position.

The great majority of candidates from the president's La Republique en Marche party failed to make it past the first round of voting and key cities like Paris and Marseille are widely expected to choose non LREM candidates.

The party's goal is to have 10,000 municipal councillors – a fraction of the 535,000 seats up for election.

READ ALSO Speed limits, parking spaces and bikes – Hidalgo's eco-friendly plans for Paris

Why are people not voting for them?

LREM is a new party, founded by Macron the year before his presidential win in 2017, so it doesn't have the long-established tribal loyalty of older parties like the Partie Socialiste or Les Republicaines.   

Although it started as a grassroots movement, the party has failed to consolidate local support since Macron was elected.

“The LREM still hasn't taken root locally, and is struggling to prove that it's a viable force,” said Jean Garrigues, a political historian at the University of Orleans.

Even Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, whose popularity has soared on his perceived steady hand during the Covid-19 outbreak, faces a close fight to regain his mayor's seat in the port of Le Havre.

An Ifop poll released on Sunday saw Philippe's approval ratings rise to 50 percent while Macron's dropped further to 38 percent.

It may be no coincidence that Philippe has refused to become a card-carrying LREM member, after leaving the right-wing Republicains to become head of government.

Macron himself has issues with popularity that are likely to taint his party – he is seen by many as aloof and arrogant but it's also not unusual for voters to use a mid-term local election (Macron's term in office lasts until 2022) to punish the government for perceived failings.

So how important are these elections for Macron?

The result does not directly affect the work of Macron's government, but will be widely seen as a confidence issue.

Yet Macron himself gives the impression of being barely concerned by the result, something that analysts say reflects a disdain of party politics that could prove risky as he seeks to revive his reform drive.

“When you have a very vertical conception of power, basically a very personal one, you can imagine why he doesn't want to have a party that weighs him down,” said Chloe Morin, a political scientist at the Fondation Jean-Jaures think-tank.

The go-it-alone approach proved its limits, however, with the unexpectedly fierce 'yellow vest' rebellion of 2018-19, which saw furious protesters accuse the former investment banker of being cut off from the day-to-day struggles of millions.

More recently, a decision to push through a hotly contested pension reform by decree, overriding opposition from unions and even from lawmakers in his own party, has further depleted his political capital.

“This vision that parties aren't good for anything, or that unions can be bypassed, is dangerous because that's how you end up with the yellow vests,” Morin said.

Adding to Macron's headaches, several LREM lawmakers have defected in recent weeks, depriving him of an outright majority in the National Assembly.

An electoral debacle on Sunday could prompt others to abandon ship, providing grist for opponents hoping to position themselves as compelling rivals for the 2022 presidential contest.

What happens next?

Some sort of cabinet reshuffle is widely expected with the position of the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe attracting the most speculation – rumours abound that he will be sacked or moved.

Whatever the outcome, analysts expect Macron will move quickly to try to shift the narrative, urging unity in the face of France's daunting coronavirus challenges.

His office has already said a “first response” will be announced on June 29th, the day after the vote, to dozens of proposals tabled last week by his Citizens' Council on Climate.

READ ALSO A 28-hour work week and vegetarian menus – France's citizen charter for the climate

The grouping was formed in response to demands for more “direct democracy” in the wake of the yellow vest protests, and calls have emerged for Macron to hold a referendum on the proposals.

The measures could be incorporated into Macron's call to rethink France's economy as the state tries to limit the fallout from a recession that is expected to see a wave of business closures and layoffs over the coming months.

“Expectations are running very high, so the chances that people could be disappointed are high as well,” Garrigues said.

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ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.