The second round of French municipal elections on Sunday is likely to be a humiliation for President Emmanuel Macron, whose party La République en Marche is unlikely to win a single town with a population of more than 10,000.
Paris was always going to be first prize in the municipal poll, and Macron once had hopes of wresting it from the Socialists who have ruled the capital for the past two decades. But the Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is openly hostile to Macron, is virtually certain to be re-elected, after a disastrous campaign by LREM.
Benjamin Griveaux, the president’s first choice for mayor of Paris, had to withdraw from the race last winter due to a sexting scandal. He was replaced by the former health minister Agnès Buzyn. She was placed a distant third in the first round last March, then criticised the way the government she participated in handled the Covid-19 epidemic.
Macron was unable to persuade the mathematician and renegade LREM deputy Cédric Villani to end his independent candidacy, which siphoned votes from the official LREM candidates.
The Paris campaign laid bare Macron’s greatest weaknesses, his failure to create a local base for LREM, and what might be called a human resources problem, due to the lack of seasoned politicians in his young party.
The Élysée gives the impression it is eager to put the embarrassing municipal poll behind it. A presidential adviser focused on “the new stage” of Macron’s presidency at a briefing on Thursday. In the last two years of his term, Macron intends to concentrate on rebuilding the economy and redistributing power between the central government, regions and departments, to the benefit of the latter.
Macron is intent on showing that he is moving on. Rather than dwell on Sunday night’s results, he will start Monday by receiving the 150 members of the Citizens’ Convention on Climate, then travel to Meseberg, Germany, to discuss European issues with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Macron on Thursday launched a “national independent mission on the management of the Covid-19 crisis and the risk of future pandemics”. The president chose Prof Didier Pittet of the University of Geneva to head the mission, which will run parallel to a parliamentary inquiry.
A close adviser to Macron said the very fact that local elections can be held three months after they were postponed because of the pandemic signals “a victory of reopening and the regression of the virus”. Macron hopes a high turnout will “confirm the confidence of the French in the authorities”.
The conservatives may lose Marseille, which they have ruled for the past quarter-century
Macron “does not expect any national lessons from the vote”, the adviser said. Previous local elections were held in 2014, two years before LREM was founded. LREM candidates will join the cohort of 35,000 French mayors for the first time.
“So the president will observe LREM successes here and there,” the adviser continued. “But he is president of all French people, and under the institutions he is above political parties.”
For a population of 172,000, results in the Channel port town of Le Havre are disproportionately important. Prime minister Édouard Philippe is standing for his old job as mayor and has made it clear he will withdraw to Le Havre if Macron sacks him in the cabinet reshuffle, which is slated for after the municipal poll.
Philippe has served Macron loyally and with competency. But he has refused to join LREM and is more than 10 percentage points ahead of Macron in opinion polls.
Marseille and Lyon, the second and third cities of France, are also typical of the reconfiguration of French politics.
The conservatives may lose Marseille, which they have ruled for the past quarter century. A candidate from the environmentalist party EELV surpassed the incumbent mayor from the conservative party Les Républicains by one percentage point in the first round.
EELV placed first in the first round in Lyon too, where the outgoing mayor, Gérard Collomb, has dominated politics for 20 years. Collomb, a former Socialist, was an early, prominent supporter of Macron. The president rewarded Collomb with the interior ministry, but the two men fell out and Collomb resigned. He has now allied himself with his former conservative adversaries in the hope of defeating the environmentalists.
LR took 140 cities of more than 10,000 people in 2014, because voters wanted to punish then president François Hollande. Conservatives are likely to lose cities on Sunday.
EELV may replicate its breakthrough in the 2019 European elections, when it won 13.47 per cent of the vote.