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

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

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.

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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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