French Municipal Elections amid a Pandemic: What Do They Tell Us?

Despite a global pandemic, the first round of French municipal elections took place on Sunday, March 15. President Macron sought to postpone the election, but opposition parties were eager to capitalize on the last few months of popular discontent with the government. The second round of voting, due to take place on March 22, has been postponed to either May or June, throwing the validity of the election and the accrued political momentum into doubt.

Even in less stressful times, these elections are not easy to interpret. There are 35,000 French municipalities, ranging from small villages to Paris, all of which have different voting procedures. French citizens elect the municipal council of their town, and the municipal council will select the mayor for a six-year term. The uniqueness of French municipal elections (which are in essence a referendum on local mayors) makes it difficult to identify clear national political trends from the results, although these elections shape the French upper chamber, the Senate. Nevertheless, halfway through President Macron’s five-year term, these elections may offer clues as to the French electorate’s mood at this unique global moment.

Despite the special measures put in place amid the pandemic, French voters stayed home: at least 55 percent of them did across all age groups, even though older voters are typically more reliable than younger voters. This massive abstention topped the 2014 abstention rate, which was already a record high. Although it may be politically consequential, the low voter turnout has no legal impact on the validity of the elections.

Results: The Left Is Back

The Greens (Europe Écologie – Les Verts, or EELV) were the clear winner and are well-positioned to take over major cities such as Lyon, Strasbourg, Tours, Besançon, and Poitiers—in addition to keeping Grenoble, the only large city they previously held. In Toulouse, Bordeaux, Rennes, and Lille, they also had excellent results, which will make them a significant political force in municipal councils or in ruling coalitions.

Nearly defunct at the national level, the center-left Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste, or PS) also had a good performance, successfully defending its most prized possessions—Paris, Lille, Nantes, Rennes, Rouen, Le Mans—and potentially gaining a few significant cities (e.g., Nancy, Argenteuil).

On the right, the right-wing Republicans (Les Républicains, or LR) maintained the political status quo thanks to charismatic incumbents who had built strong political support in some larger cities, but the party did not significantly improve its standing in other cities.

La République en Marche (President Macron’s party, or LREM) was competing for the first time in municipal elections and failed to achieve any significant result. This may be due to the nature of LREM as a movement around Emmanuel Macron that does not have fixed local political infrastructure the way other political parties do. Or it may be a bit of a protest vote against the changes President Macron has instigated over his nearly three-year tenure.

The far-right party of Marine Le Pen, the National Rally (Rassemblement national, or RN), did not do well either. It was disproportionately affected by low turnout because of the makeup of its electorate (strongest support between 25 and 60 year-olds, category in which abstention was very high). And it continues to suffer from its inability to build coalitions with other mainstream parties, which is required to be successful at the local and regional levels (with an exception in the south of France where RN remains strong).

Lessons: Shifting the Balance of Power from a Movement to the Political Left

The French political spectrum on the left is back after years of being in the electoral wilderness, driven by the excellent results of the Greens, which both offer a new and progressive alternative to the “old left” of the Socialists and address a top concern of French voters: climate change. But the old left did well too, particularly in cities where it has built coalitions with far-left parties, the Greens, and the Socialist Party. These are early days, but some could see in these results a potential coalition at the national level for 2022.

On the right side of the political spectrum, the Republicans had a decent first round and did not lose ground, but they did not gain either. RN did not do well, although it remains Macron’s most visible (and likely) opponent for 2022.

Finally, this was not a positive outcome for LREM, which speaks to future challenges for the party. Clearly, LREM continues to struggle with establishing itself at the local level and move beyond identification with the president and a handful of its followers at the national level. Though it is two years before the next presidential election, it shows the minimal results of LREM’s efforts to plant roots locally over the past three years.

Next Steps

With the French government’s decision to lock down the country for the next 15 days, the second and final round of the elections, initially scheduled for March 22, has been postponed and will probably not take place before June. Legally, this is uncharted territory as there are no specific provisions to this effect in French electoral law. Some leading constitutional law experts had expressed the view that the integrity of the entire election could be challenged in court, but the government has promised it will find a legal solution to “enshrine” the results of the first round until a second round can be held. Politically, the Greens and Socialist Party have the most interest in consolidating their good electoral performances, although no party has exploited the pandemic for political purposes so far.

How these issues will be resolved bears some weight on the next significant election in France, the regional and “départementales” elections of 2021 (another type of local election). These elections typically have a much stronger national dimension than the municipal elections as they take place just one year before the presidential and parliamentary elections. This electoral calendar will provide an interesting opportunity for the left to ramp up its efforts and try to convert its local successes into a national victory. But this strategy would require the left to truly unify and be driven by one or several strong leaders—of the kind that has not yet surfaced.

Heather A. Conley is a senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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