Voting in Times of Coronavirus 

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In an interview with Freiheit.org, our France expert Carmen Descamps explains how the low voter turnout and losses for La République en Marche came about.

Last Sunday saw the first round of the local elections in France. The elections were to be a milestone for French President Macron and the second half of his term in office. The results on 15 and 22 March were also considered to be crucial for the future of his party La République en Marche. Until the tide turned with the sudden spread of the coronavirus in France. Our France expert Carmen Descamps analyses the situation.

 

Why are the local elections so important for La République en Marche (LaREM) and therefore also for President Emmanuel Macron?

It is important to know that France has a total of more than 35,000 municipalities – in Germany we have less than a third of this number. In all these communes, the town and municipal councils and mayors have now been elected, including the prestigious mayor’s office of Paris.

In many ways, the local elections were a milestone and a test of mood for Macron and his party. Although the latter represents the majority in the French parliament, is the largest delegation within the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament and also the second largest French party there, it still lacks local roots. Since the 2017 elections and the subsequent landslide victory of Macron and his party, which was followed by a reorganisation of the political landscape, there has been no further nationwide election. La République en Marche therefore still has no local representatives. While conservatives and socialists secretly hoped for a comeback, the right-wing extremists around Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) once again tried to position themselves as a (protest) counterpart to Macron.

It was necessary to prove that the president and the government implementing his ambitious reform programme still had the support of the population to continue their course or, if necessary, to adjust it in view of the presidential elections in 2022. The yellow vest movement and the ongoing strikes against the pension reform in particular had recently massively challenged French reform policy. Despite improved labour market figures, two-thirds of French consider Macron’s policy to be overlooking the needs and concerns of the people. LaREM mayors as well as representatives in the municipal and city councils offer the opportunity to strengthen democracy “from below” again and to build trust locally, as French people trust their local representatives and especially the mayors most. In short, it is nothing less than a gain in confidence and a lasting political anchorage of the party through its establishment at local level.

Has the calculation worked out and what happens now after the first round of elections?

The answer is simply no. Under normal conditions, Macron’s calculation could have worked. However, the rapid spread of the coronavirus turned the tide in the week before the first round of elections. France currently has 9,134 cases, including 264 deaths (as of 19.03.2020) and ranks fourth in Europe behind Germany. Looking at the developments in Spain a few days earlier, the decision to continue holding the elections under these circumstances was highly questionable. While public life has already come to a standstill throughout France, i.e. bars, restaurants and theatres are closed until mid-April, French people were supposed to appear for the election last Sunday and, for reasons of hygiene, bring their own ballpoint pen to fill out the ballot. This difficult balancing act between democratic responsibility and public hygiene discipline contributed to the fact that many French people stayed away from the ballot box. Not surprisingly, a low turnout was already apparent around noon. At the end of the day, the turnout had settled at a record low of almost 45%, 20 percentage points below the last comparable figure for 2014. Partly out of caution, partly in protest, many voters stayed away from the ballot boxes.

The results of the first round of voting showed a tendency to confirm the incumbent mayors. This was particularly true for Parisian mayor Anne Hildago (Parti Socialiste), who ended up clearly ahead of the conservative candidate and the third-ranking LaREM candidate and former health minister Agnès Buzyn. This is not only due to the affair involving former LaREM candidate Benjamin Griveaux, who resigned after intimate videos were made public, and the subsequent ad hoc nomination of a new candidate, but can also be seen as a receipt for Macron and the government of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. However, these results are only a first indicator, valid statements can only be made after the second round of voting.

François Decoster, Mayor of the northern French town of Saint-Omer and President of the Renew Europe Group in the Committee of the Regions, was directly elected with a very good result of 66%. So far, the Greens have made big gains, especially in Bordeaux, Lyon, Strasbourg, Rouen and Lille. The Rassemblement National shows hardly any significant changes compared to 2014 and is gaining especially in its traditional strongholds Fréjus in the south and Hénin-Beaumont in the north. A number of ministers also took part in the election, including Prime Minister Philippe in the port city of Le Havre. If, as in this case, a majority of 43% was not achieved in the first round of voting, he would normally have had to run again next Sunday. While the conduct of the first round of voting was widely criticised, but ultimately maintained by the Prime Minister with reference to scientific advisers, the second round of voting on 22 March has now been postponed in the context of the French corona protection measures.

 

What precautionary measures does France plan to take against the further spread of the corona virus?

President Macron spoke on Monday evening in a speech on national television lasting almost twenty minutes. “We are at war”, he stressed six times in all, emphasising the fight against an invisible enemy. This may sound pathetic from the outside, but it serves to unify the French people for the difficult time that now follows “for each and every one of us”. Speeches like these show the qualities of crisis communicator Macron. For his initial speech on the Corona crisis last week, 66% of the French found him convincing – approval ratings that high have not been seen for a president for a long time. On Monday evening, Macron announced a two-week curfew on the Italian-Spanish model, but without calling it by its word; this now includes Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium. Citizens will have to carry passes with the reason for their movement, so only essential exits for supplies will be allowed and the safety distance of 1.5 metres will have to be respected. The measures have been in force since midday on Tuesday, and kindergartens, schools and universities were closed the day before. At the same time, Macron announced a comprehensive economic emergency programme, including tax and social security exemptions for workers and entrepreneurs in precarious situations. The continuation of the pension reform is also paused for the time being. In addition, Macron announced the postponement of the second round of the local elections, although the expected date of 21 June has yet to be confirmed by Parliament. At this stage, it is difficult to foresee and imagine when France – like other EU countries – will return to normality and to what extent Macron will be able to resume the ambitious and important reforms that are important for the country.

 

 

Carmen Descamps

European Affairs Manager

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