Local Elections in France: A Defeat for Macrons La République en Marche

Op-ed by Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano

Germany and France are demonstratively moving closer together: President Macron and Chancellor Merkel have jointly presented a package for the economic recovery of Europe due to the Corona pandemic. On Monday, two days before the German EU Council Presidency, both heads of states met at the government guesthouse in Meseberg, not far from Berlin. For Emanuel Macron, the visit was also an opportunity to cast his challenging political situation at home in a different light after his political movement La République En Marche (LREM) suffered a crushing defeat in the local elections.

When asked a few days ago about his expectations for the local elections in France, Emmanuel Macron replied: „I am not running as a candidate”. It was probably the French President’s intention to distance himself from the local elections – in fact, the LREM candidates performed dramatically poor at the polls on June 28th.

However, these results do not disappoint the president, as the local elections have not raised his hopes for several months. The reasons for the announced defeat are far from being secret. According to the electoral expert Baptiste Larseneur, the LREM movement, only founded in 2016, lacked a firm foothold in the local authorities, while “the mayors in office stand for stability, which made it much more difficult for the president’s party. This situation was further aggravated by the Corona crisis.”

In addition, LREM proved incapable of putting up serious candidates in the big cities. The fact that the health crisis in France turned into a crisis of political confidence further exacerbated this negative trend. Emmanuel Macron’s aim now is to simply pass over this election debacle. The French president’s strategy is to use the corona crisis to fade out the results of the lost local elections.

The Meaning of Abstention 

In many respects, this strategy may be justified. Abstention in this election reached its highest level since the foundation of the Fifth Republic, and the low turnout (40%), partly due to the coronavirus pandemic, mitigates the significance of this debacle. In the collective subconscious, the local elections in France stand for the spread of the virus. The first round of voting took place in France on 15 March: the day after, the curfew came into force and the government, which at the time refused to postpone the election, was heavily criticised for this. Three months after the first round of voting, fear of the virus clearly kept voters away from the polling stations.

At the same time, however, the abstention also reflects the population’s growing distrust of institutions and representative democracy. It is noteworthy that Macron’s two main opponents also point to the higher abstention rate to explain their disappointing election results at local level: Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical left-wing party, despite its minority participation in important coalitions with the Socialists and the Greens in Toulouse, Bordeaux and Marseilles, did not achieve any success. And Marine Le Pen, president of the radical right-wing Rassemblement National, can only rejoice in the symbolic success of her former partner Louis Alliot in the city of Perpignan, even if according to recent polls she could be the runner-up in the next presidential elections. One might therefore think that the importance of the local elections for the further political process in France should not be overestimated.

Can LREM decouple the results of the local elections from national politics and simply ignore the election? Not really. Firstly, because decentralisation is an important element of Macron’s reform policy, which should lead to the enhancement of the role that mayors fulfil. Secondly, the election highlights the mistakes made by LREM. 

The Lesson of a Debacle: Realigning the Political Compass 

The party must first deal with its own mistakes. Three years after its triumphant election victory, which gave the President an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the party is characterised by a clear lack of discipline. On the one hand, in cities like Paris and Lyon, internal trench warfare have destroyed any chance of success. On the other hand, the official candidates who are close to the president proved to be clear miscasts.

In Paris, the LREM candidate Benjamin Griveau had to resign shortly before the first ballot due to a sex scandal. His successor, Agnès Buzyn, former Health Minister, described the election as a masquerade and received only 13.7% of the votes. The strategy of the former Interior Minister and incumbent Mayor of Lyon, Gérard Collomb, to form a contradictory alliance with the conservative Laurent Wauquiez also led to a dramatic defeat.

Ultimately, the most important lesson of the local elections in France is the success of the Greens, who for the first time in history conquer the most important cities in France. The electoral lists led by the Greens won in Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Besançon, Nancy and Tours. In Paris, the red-green coalition of Anne Hidalgo, a representative of the socialists, who led a green election campaign, gained a victory. The Green Wave is a crucial moment that Macron should not underestimate. Having replaced the previous interplay between left and right wing parties, Macron and his party could soon lose a decisive amount of votes in favour of two competing camps – Red-Green and right wing extremists. Overlooking this risk would not be a good strategy.

The Problem: What Does LREM Stand For?

What LREM stands for is ultimately hard to say. When Emmanuel Macron was elected in 2017, he represented an ambitious and, for France, original programme, both social and liberal. His alliance with the old centre-right alliance, embodied by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, stood in fundamental contradiction with his promise to break with outdated traditions. For it is precisely the representatives of the centre-right camp who stand for continuity and political tradition, rather than for “revolution”, as was the title of his 2016 book and his programmatic claim in the presidential election campaign. Even though the Prime Minister has now been re-elected in Le Havre with 59% of votes, the question of his role in the future government remains.

From the Crisis Back on Track Towards Modernisation  

Should Macron continue to assert himself as a centre-right candidate, or will he return to his original idea of modernising the administration and the cumbersome French state apparatus? After the debacle there is much to be said in favour of a “revolution” and a return to his former ‘Macronism’. The latter should be based on at least two pillars in order to draw the right lessons from the current crisis:

On the one hand, the participatory citizens’ forums on climate policy, whose proposals will be presented to the French parliament and in part incorporated in referendums, could set an example for new forms of democratic participation. Here, in contrast to the Greens, ecology and economy should go hand in hand in order to propel climate policy commitment into a growth engine for innovation. On the other hand, Macron’s original ideas of modernising the public sector should be revived in order to counter the public’s disenchantment with politics.

Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano

Head of Europe Program at Institut Montaigne.