Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 September 2020

French voters expected to deal a blow to President Emmanuel Macron

Municipal election run-offs on Sunday will be first polls after country's coronavirus crisis

The French president Emmanuel Macron is widely expected to receive a significant blow on Sunday when municipal elections throughout the country give western voters their first post-lockdown chance to judge their leaders’ performance during the Covid-19 crisis.

With ecological issues increasingly important to electorates across the world, green candidates could be the main winners, joining left-wing parties in coalitions taking control of major cities including Marseille, Lyon and Montpellier.

Paris is likely, on the basis of most recent opinion polling, to remain in the hands of Anne Hidalgo, who represents the mainstream socialist party but has built a reputation as a mayor with strongly environmental credentials including ambitious new plans to remodel the celebrated Champs-Elysees avenue as the heart a traffic-free park.

France is unusual in having staged elections both at the beginning of lockdown and again as the crisis eases. Mr Macron’s government was criticised for holding the first round of polling on March 15 despite the restrictions on everyday life announced a few days earlier. The turnout was a record low, with a 55 per cent abstaining, and is predicted to be lower still on Sunday. Opinion polls suggest little more than a third of electors intend to vote in nearly 5,000 cities and towns where run-offs are taking place.

“It will be very bad for Mr Macron,” says Franz-Olivier Giesbert, a leading French commentator with vast experience in the media and politics. “And it will lead to weeks of inquests on why they did so poorly.”

Mr Giesbert expects some advances for Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally (RN) including a notable victory in Perpignan, a city close to the Spanish border which would be the first with a population above 100,000 to be taken by the party. Because of multiple coalitions forged in municipal areas around France, he believes the conventional but in recent years greatly weakened parties of left and right may also show signs of recovery.

Among cities and towns where the first round produced outright winners, Nice remains firmly under the control of the mainstream right (Les Republicains).

Viewed from other countries, notably the US and Britain, Mr Macron is often seen as having handled the pandemic with relative decisiveness and clarity. But even in France, there have been familiar concerns over testing, protective equipment and the way society values healthcare workers. His government was criticised for a cost-saving reduction of its massive stock of face masks and then claiming there was no need for their use in public, advice that was later changed.

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After an early boost in poll ratings, the president has slipped back to a pre-crisis level of unpopularity, with around 60 per cent of voters expressing dissatisfaction. Current projections suggest that if he sought re-election as president in 2022, his share of the vote in a run-off with Ms Le Pen would fall from 66 per cent in 2017 to a more vulnerable 55 per cent.

Mr Macron’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, retains greater public support. But after a history of disagreements with the president, he appears certain to leave office soon, possibly as early as a cabinet reshuffle predicted by observers in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s elections.

Mr Philippe, a keen amateur boxer previously associated with Les Republicains, is ahead of a Communist-led left-wing alliance in the western port of Le Havre, a narrow lead but one that should enable him to win another term as mayor, a position he held before becoming prime minister after the 2017 presidential campaign. He is entitled to hold both positions but his expected departure from government would leave him free to concentrate on representing the city.

According to Mr Giesbert, success for green candidates is unlikely to produce a nationwide political force because “they are too divided among themselves”. He also doubts whether the outcome of the elections depends significantly on how voters feel their president has coped with the pandemic, though he says Mr Macron has broadly failed compared with some other European leaders.

One survey, conducted among citizens of seven nations by the polling institute Ipsos, suggested people in France were more dissatisfied than those in the other six, with New Zealand’s much-praised prime minister Jacinda Ardern securing the highest overall rating – 7.8 out of 10 compared with 4.1 for Mr Macron.

Another French analyst, Jacques Reland, a senior research fellow at the Global Policy Institute, a London-based think tank, said: “Everyone knows it’s going to be a disaster for Mr Macron, leaving his party [La Republique En Marche] with few councillors and very few mayors, hardly any in big towns.

“But it’s important to remember that the French generally distrust politicians with the exception of their mayors. Those who seem to have done a good job during the pandemic will benefit in the vote.”

France has recorded the fifth-highest number of deaths related to Covid-19, with a total of about 30,000. Only the US, Brazil, Britain and Italy have experienced greater mortality.

But “deconfinement” is well under away. Schools, restaurants and cafes, cinemas and public attractions are among facilities that have reopened. Discotheques remain closed and the Ligue 1 football season has been abandoned with the clear leaders Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) declared champions – unlike top-league equivalents in other European countries, where fixtures have resumed without spectators – but beaches are filling up and life is gradually returning to the “new normal”.

The timing of the elections unexpectedly recalls a three-year-old scandal that continues to affect French political life.

Until a few months before the elections that installed Mr Macron at the Elysee Palace, the favourite to win was Francois Fillon, the candidate for the centre-right Republicains and a former prime minister.

His chances were wrecked by revelations of payments of hundreds of thousands of euros from public funds to his British wife, Penelope, for allegedly fictitious duties on his behalf over a 15-year period, income both claim was legitimate.

Sunday’s voting takes place on the eve of verdicts in the couple’s trial for embezzlement. Instead of leading his party and serving as France’s president, Mr Fillon risks imprisonment if convicted, prosecutors having called for a three-year term for him, a suspended sentence for his wife as “consenting victim” of his actions and huge fines for both.

Updated: June 25, 2020 03:20 PM

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