There were two obvious losers in France’s runoff round of local elections, held last weekend after a three-month delay caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. One was democracy. Only about 40 per cent of eligible voters bothered to turn up, a record low. The other was President Emmanuel Macron, whose core urban fan base went Green.
The eco-friendly EELV party snatched control of several big cities, from Lyon to Bordeaux, while Paris remained in the hands of its car-bashing Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo. Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche!, flopped. It wasn’t so much a green wave as a green “tsunami.”
The low turnout, and Macron’s performance, partly reflected the surreal train-wreck of the election campaign itself. Macron’s original candidate for the Paris mayoralty threw in the towel in February after a sex tape surfaced online, and his replacement never looked convincing. The COVID-19 epidemic struck France a month later, completely overshadowing the first round of voting — which, in hindsight, really shouldn’t have gone ahead — and delaying the second round for three months. No wonder so many people avoided the voting booths and opted for post-lockdown sunbathing.
This election shows the potential for surprises and a further fragmentation of the French electorate. COVID-19 has put Macron’s economic reform agenda on ice, and it’s pushing him to mark a new start with a government reshuffle.
And yet, the results fit longer-term trends in French society. The environment has climbed up the list of voter issues in recent years, reaching second place behind security in France’s 120 biggest cities, according to a 2019 poll. The coronavirus has kept it there: Some 56 per cent of French people polled earlier this month said they wanted an economic model in France that protects natural resources, rather than one focused just on job creation. The figure was 50 per cent in December.
There’s a deglobalisation element to this, as the French favour more onshoring of industry and protectionism as a response to COVID-19. But urban citizens are especially fed up with the legacy of car-dominated public works and highways. In Lyon, the Greens campaigned to make the city more bike-and-bus-friendly, while centre-right rivals talked up extravagant projects such as ring-road extensions.
While Macron is clearly greener than his chief rival for the presidency, the far-right Marine Le Pen, he has failed to keep up with the aspirational identity politics of his city-dwelling base. The political neophytes that stuff Macron’s party have struggled to establish themselves locally, while the man himself is less popular than he used to be. A cycle of protests and policy U-turns over everything from fuel tax to pension reforms has eroded support even among his core white-collar backers (the “bourgeois bloc”).
Ideological and economic fault lines
In the 2017 presidential election, the 42-year-old former banker and one-time Socialist attracted 90 per cent of the vote in Paris. In last year’s European elections, his party came first in the capital, with 33 per cent of the vote. This time around, Macron’s candidate came in third, behind Hidalgo and the centre-right Republicans.
None of this offers a simple read across for the 2022 presidential election. France is polarised nationally along ideological and economic fault lines, despite a cradle-to-grave welfare state and relatively low income inequality. Movements such as the “gilets jaunes” show a deepening divide between the urban elites and people from rural areas or smaller towns who are struggling to get by and who depend on cars.
For all the headway made by the Greens, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party won control of Perpignan, where a quarter of the population is unemployed and almost a third below the poverty line. At the national level, Macron is still seen as best placed to defeat her, judging by a recent poll that suggested he would repeat his 2017 victory in 2022, although by a smaller margin.
Still, this election shows the potential for surprises and a further fragmentation of the French electorate. COVID-19 has put Macron’s economic reform agenda on ice, and it’s pushing him to mark a new start with a government reshuffle. This will mean deciding the fate of his successful and popular centre-right prime minister, Edouard Philippe, while also seeking to steal the Greens’ thunder as standard bearers of the progressive Left.
Anti-pollution policies should have been a cinch for Macron to promote, but his need to placate the yellow vests limits his room for manoeuvre. The cities now highlight his vulnerability.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels.