emmanuel macron, Source: Emmanuel Macron, presidente da França by Jeso Carneiro on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

French local elections post-mortem – a bruising wave of change

French local elections post-mortem – a bruising wave of change

Despite his party’s abysmal results, French President Emmanuel Macron managed to make the best out of a terrible situation and shake up his government

Following a three-month delay, France headed to the polls to vote in the 2nd round of its local elections. And ever since, it has been a whirlwind of trouble for those who were hit the hardest by voters – more specifically, French President Emmanuel Macron.

But where there are losers, there are also winners – and in keeping with the spirit of the European Elections of 2019, France keeps on bearing the torch of the much-discussed “Green Wave”, with the Greens not only playing a pivotal role in supporting leftist candidates around the country but managing to outright win some of France’s largest cities.

Extraordinary electoral process

The 2nd round of France’s local elections was one of the first national votes to be held in Europe following the worst months of the coronavirus pandemic. The first round was held at its very start – at the insistence of then-Prime Minister Edouard Phillippe and in spite of Emmanuel Macron albeit timid protestations.

Plagued by a number of problems, the ruling LREM party hardly managed to make the impact that it would have wanted. An exceptionally low turnout, combined with constant displays of infighting, following months of laborious and much-decried talks and discussions on controversial reforms spelt a bleak picture for Macron’s party. The 2nd round did not go much better.

Green Wave in times of pandemic

The biggest winners of these elections were by far the Greens. Despite the ongoing pandemic that has hit France hard and further damaged the image of French President Emmanuel Macron, French citizens have not forgotten where their long-term priorities lie – namely in a greener and more environmentally friendly future.

Building on their success in the European Elections of May 2019, the French Greens managed to further increase their presence on the national stage. Lacking a lot of the baggage that many other candidates brought with them and carrying a message of renewal and hope for the future, the Greens successfully staged massive uprisings in some of France’s largest cities – like Strasbourg, Lyon, Marseille and others.

Not only that, but their support helped struggling socialists from around the country keep their jobs. The most high-profile example of such an event is the situation in Paris, where incumbent mayor Anne Hidalgo managed to hang on to office on a platform for a greener and more climate-friendly city, endorsed by and large by the Greens.

Thanks to their exemplary performance, the French Greens have yet again put their mark on the country’s political landscape. By securing some of the largest and sought-after local posts and by proving instrumental in the battles fought by others, the Green agenda has suddenly once again skyrocketed in importance.

Coming out of these elections, there is a clear message for President Macron – the future is green and larger cities and urban electorates have embraced it.

Running on steam

When it comes to losers – there are plenty. First and foremost, the two traditional French parties – the socialists and the Republicans once again suffered a beating, pushing them yet another step closer to irrelevance – but hey, at least it wasn’t as bad as last time.

Most of their successes in these elections were achieved thanks to the fact that their candidates were recognizable faces in their constituencies and had been performing well in their jobs over the past years.

By holding onto most of their strongholds (with the exception of some larger urban areas) the two parties have successfully fended off their political demise – for the time being, at least. They also managed to wash away, at least partly, the shame of the 2019 European Elections but remain on the edge of a political pitfall.

A Pyrrhic victory

Up next is Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. The party’s result was touted as a great success by its officials but judging by the numbers it can hardly be called anything but a failure. For reference, in 2014, the National Rally (then called the National Front) successfully secured 1438 council seats in 463 towns. Jumping back to today, the party barely won some 840 seats in a total of 258 towns.

Even Le Pen’s biggest victory can hardly be called such. In the southern city of Perpignan, Louis Aliot managed to secure the mayoral post – but no thanks to the National Rally. Quite the opposite, throughout the campaign, he attempted to distance himself as much as possible from Le Pen’s party and instead opted to work alongside other local far-right groups. Furthermore, he refused to allow the use of the party’s logo and imaging and shunned the National Rally’s anti-Macron and anti-Islam messaging instead preferring to tap into anti-Parisian and anti-northern sentiment to stir up his base.

Despite the official party line being that the Perpignan win is a sign that they are on the right side of history, Aliot’s flat out rejection of Le Pen’s main ideas and his success might end up a tough pill to swallow for National Rally leaders in the lead-up to the 2022 presidential elections.

Finding opportunity in defeat

And finally, we come to the man who lost the most in the 2nd round of France’s local elections – namely French President Emmanuel Macron. Although technically, he didn’t have all that much to lose since his party had never participated in local elections, he still came out of the entire ordeal battered and bruised.

His handling of the coronavirus crisis and the aforementioned long-term problems of his time as President, combined with his party’s apparent inability to create local structures led to a dismal showing in both rounds of the elections. Yet on the bright side, it gave Macron the opportunity to sack his Prime Minister who had eclipsed him in popularity as well as his government and appoint someone new and almost entirely unknown to the job.

The results of the 2nd round of the local elections were a long time coming and it had become evident that Edouard Phillippe would have to go in the wake of the defeat. His ratings were seemingly immune to the chaos that unfurled around his boss and his popularity was turning him into a potential threat. Unfortunately, what made his sacking even more uncomfortable, was the fact that he delivered one of the more trumping victories for Macron’s party during a day otherwise filled with defeat, as he was re-elected Mayor of Le Havre with 59% of the votes.

And yet despite the abysmal performance of his own party, Macron has managed to get out as much as possible from the entire ordeal. The sweeping changes in government positions will give him the chance to finish his mandate on a high note by reaping all the potential benefits of pushing his reforms over the finish line. By choosing a largely unrecognizable face to serve as Prime Minister he has made sure to not repeat the mistakes of the past – namely to freely be able to take credit for all victories while simultaneously letting the government take on all the blame for the failures.

The 2nd round of the French local elections was not only held in unprecedented times but will also have a tangible impact on all facets of the country’s political life. The successes of the Greens and the failures of all others have pushed the climate agenda back to the top of the list of priorities while simultaneously giving the government the opportunity to adapt to an entirely changed and different landscape.



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