French local elections: Greens achieve major gains while Macron’s party slumps

France's Greens achieved major gains Sunday in local elections marked by record-low turnout and the failure of President Emmanuel Macron's ruling party to make any significant impact.

French local elections: Greens achieve major gains while Macron's party slumps

France's Greens celebrated major gains Sunday in local elections marked by record-low turnout and the failure of President Emmanuel Macron's ruling party to make any significant impact.

Macron expressed his concern over the high abstention rate, estimated at about 60 percent, and acknowledged that the elections were marked by a “green wave”, the presidency said.

Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye spoke of “disappointment” over the poor showing of the centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party Macron created shortly before his successful 2017 presidential run.

This is the first time it had competed in nationwide local elections.

“There are places… where our own internal divisions brought us to results that were extremely disappointing,” Ndiaye told French television.

The party's candidate in Paris, Agnes Buzyn, was projected to come a distant third with incumbent Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo on course to easily win a second term as mayor of the French capital.

Marine Le Pen's National Rally, meanwhile, claimed victory in the southern city of Perpignan, in what would be the first far-right takeover of a French city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since 1995. 

Projections based on early vote counts showed Europe Ecology, the Green party (EELV), poised to take the key cities of Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg and in a very close contest for Lille.

The biggest coup for the Greens would have been to oust former minister Martine Aubry as mayor of Lille, but she escaped victorious from the tight race.

'Not very good news' 

Some 16.5 million eligible voters cast ballots in nearly 5,000 cities and towns where the first round of municipal voting, on March 15th, had failed to yield a decisive outcome.

This represents about 15 percent of the country's municipal councils where power remained up for grabs.

But estimates showed that only two in five voters turned up, an abstention rate that Le Pen described as “astonishing” and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said amounted to “a civic strike”.

Macron said the low turnout was “not very good news,” according to the Elysee.

The first election round, which took place as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining deadly momentum, already yielded a record-low 55-percent abstention rate.

The second phase, originally scheduled for March 22nd, was postponed after France went into lockdown.  Most restrictions have now been eased.

With a national death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some voters angry over the government's failure to provide protective material like masks rapidly.

The new polling date was set after the government's scientific council said it was possible to hold another round safely, but voters were required to wear face masks and urged to bring their own pens to lower the contamination risk. 

Many voters and election officials sported germ-blocking plastic visors, and plexiglass screens were erected between them at several polling stations, which also provided sanitising hand gel.


Macron is widely rumoured  to be preparing for a cabinet reshuffle after Sunday's results, and the future of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who won his race for mayor in the Normandy port city of Le Havre, appeared unsure.

Though French law allows for the holding of two executive posts, observers expect Macron to use the occasion to axe the premier, whose popularity exceeds his own according to opinion polls.

Firing Philippe would allow Macron “to claim he is delivering on his promise to ensure the 'second act' of his presidency takes note of failings revealed by his handling of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.

With just 22 months to the next presidential election, Macron's main challenger nationwide is Le Pen.

Analysts say disillusion with the LREM and Macron, who critics say is a president of the rich out of touch with ordinary people, may have dissuaded people from going out to vote in already complicated circumstances.

The only region of France not voting Sunday was the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic was deemed too active to open polling stations.

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French local elections: Who won and who lost

Even though only half of the French people turned out to vote, Sunday's local elections could have a significant impact on the country's political landscape with the next presidential election almost within sight.

French local elections: Who won and who lost
Should Marine Le Pen be feeling disappointed after Sunday's election results? Photo: AFP

1.       Sarkozy finally back with a bang

Up until these last two weeks the consensus was that Nicolas Sarkozy’s return to frontline French politics at the end of last year had been a missed opportunity.

Sarkozy has appeared uninspired, even bored at times and was left looking largely irrelevant after the Paris terror attacks for which the Socialist government and president François Hollande were credited for handling the traumatic aftermath with dignity and authority.

Sarkozy's desperation to be once again seen as a serious player in French politics could be summed up by how he nudged his way to the front of the post-terror attacks unity march alongside world leaders, for which he was largely mocked.

However the results of the local elections in which Sarkozy’s centre-right coalition took 66 out of 101 départments shows the old warrior has lost neither his appetite or skill for a fight and reports of his demise were misplaced.

“Never before has our political family achieved such a result,” said Sarkozy on Sunday night, looking highly content with his day’s work.

Sarkozy’s energetic leadership of the election campaign has helped to restore some of his allure and to cover up for his weak comeback.

Sarkozy is set to rebrand his scandal-plagued UMP party in the weeks to come in a bid to boost its image. It is expected to be re-baptised “Les Republicans” as he hopes to convince the French public that he is the true representative of French values.

While the 2017 presidential election may seem a long way off, Sarkozy, who hasn't officially announced his bid to reclaim the country's top job, faces his party's primary election next year, He will have to convince members he deserves a shot at taking back the Elysée palace.

Sunday’s resounding victory in the local elections has put him in a strong position and his rivals Alain Juppé and François Fillon must be worried. So too, perhaps for the first time, will be François Hollande.

National Front 'disappointed' by record showing

Despite Marine Le Pen putting a brave face on things, Sunday’s results were seen as a disappointment for the far-right National Front party.

The anti-immigration, anti-Europe party were left empty handed in that they failed to pick up one single council, including in their southern heartland of the Vaucluse, which was seen as their best chance of a win.

Part of the reason the results are seen as a disappointment for the FN was due to pre-election polls suggesting the party would top the vote, as well as the fact they are naturally being compared to last year’s double election success in the municipal and European elections.

However Sunday’s results still marked a historic high for the National Front as they took council seats in a record 14 départements. The FN also picked up a healthy tally of votes in various regions across the country and not just in their bastion of the south, showing their appeal is spreading and becoming more deep-rooted.

Political analyst Jean-Yves Camus noted that Sunday's departmental elections are "a less favourable (type of election) for the FN… because you need a local base and because of the way the vote is organised."

In several regions, voters on the left and right joined forces to keep the FN out of power, despite calls from Sarkozy to abstain rather than support the Socialists.

The fact that everyone is talking about the FN’s results and not just those of the socialists and the centre-right UMP shows just how far Le Pen and co have come.

While political analysts suggest she is highly unlikely to win the presidential election in 2017 as some have evoked, she is credited with establishing the FN as the third party in French politics.

Socialists in disarray once again

Another year, another crushing election blow for François Hollande and his Socialist government. The socialists achieved their worst result in the local elections since 1982, winning only 34 councils and seeing 25 switch from right to left.

"It's clearly yet another protest vote … and the situation is becoming very difficult two years out from the presidential election," said Frederic Dabi, from polling institute Ifop.

After last year’s hammering in the municipal elections, Hollande sacked his then Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and ordered new man Manuel Valls to form a new government.

While Valls is safe, there will be pressure on him to shake things up once again, but the prime minister himself is reluctant, possibly realising that a reshuffle now is unlikely to change the fortunes of the party.

The results were also another setback for the Hollande-Valls duo, whose popularity boost after the terror attacks has long since deflated. In a symbolic personal blow to the pair, both their local fiefdoms (la Corrèze for Hollande and Essonne for Valls) were won by the right.

Valls accepted the defeat but then attempted to divert attention away from his own party’s failings by focusing on the score of the National Front, which was “far-too high”. Perhaps he should have concentrated his campaign more on winning over unhappy socialists rather that going after Le Pen.

The Socialists have suffered mainly due to the fact those on the left of the party have deserted them and become disenchanted by the government’s continued austerity and shift to more liberal economic policies. As is usual for an unpopular government struggling to reignite the economy, they have been punished in mid-term elections.

The election result will give renewed vigour to those rebels, known as Les Frondeurs, who have already called for a new "unity of the left".

One rebel, Jerome Guedj, urged a change of course, saying: "Otherwise, tonight will just be a dress rehearsal for what is going to happen to us in 2017," when the next presidential election is held.

Just as the result is a boon for Sarkozy with the 2017 presidential election almost in sight, it is another setback for Hollande’s own ever-weakening chances of being re-elected to the Elysée Palace.