Home > News > France held elections under coronavirus. Here are four takeaways.
172 views 8 min 0 Comment

France held elections under coronavirus. Here are four takeaways.

Macron’s party didn’t do terribly — but also didn’t do well

In March, France held the first round of its 2020 municipal elections in over 35,000 cities, despite the health threat posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Voters were asked to choose their local councilors, and indirectly, mayors. The country recorded historically low turnout on March 15, with less than 45 percent of registered voters making it to the polls. The country then went into lockdown — delaying the second round of the elections until later this year, or possibly even next year.

So how did things look for French President Emmanuel Macron’s center-right party — La République En Marche, “The Republic on the Move”? LREM didn’t get the crushing majorities that it claimed in elections in 2017. But it also didn’t collapse, despite intense protests from the “yellow vests” movement and widespread opposition to the government’s pension overhauls.

Here’s what happened:

1. Low turnout did not change voting patterns

Holding an election in pandemic times meant that turnout dropped a staggering 18 percentage points from the last local elections in 2014. While turnout for these elections generally has been lower than for presidential elections in recent decades, this is a sharp drop-off. Even last year’s European Parliament election attracted a higher fraction of voters, despite that kind of election usually yielding much lower turnout rates than domestic ones.

What France’s ‘yellow vests’ protests say about Emmanuel Macron

Still, low turnout did not create new voting demographics. Older people face higher risks from the coronavirus, but just before the election, an Ipsos poll estimated that over 60 percent of voters age 60 and older still intended to vote. The same poll also estimated that, as in previous elections, turnout would be much lower among the youth and those with lower incomes.

2. Macron’s party didn’t do great — or badly

The other big question was how Macron’s party would do. French municipal elections are dominated by local elite figures with a strong presence in their community. Macron’s party, which did not even exist in the last municipal elections, has only limited grass-roots support.

To figure out how national politics translated to the local level, we focused on the 648 French cities with over 15,000 inhabitants. Macron’s LREM party presented its own lists of candidates in only 161 of those cities, and two-thirds of these lists qualified for the second round. Much more often (in 311 cities), LREM instead formed alliances with other, preexisting centrist parties. Macron’s strategy seemed to be less about winning the local election than striking alliances to hide the party’s limited number of viable candidates — and perhaps to share the blame with other centrist parties if they did badly.

Of course, these factors make it harder to interpret the outcome. However, if we compare the vote in cities where Macron’s party competed on its own merits, with Macron’s own 2017 vote share in the same cities, we can see that LREM lost roughly half of its vote share. It went from roughly 25 percent of the vote in 2017 to 13 percent in 2020.

Can Macron quiet the ‘yellow vests’ protests with his ‘Great Debate’?

3. The traditional left and right did well

At the national level, France has moved from a fairly predictable two-party system based on its traditional governing parties, the right-wing Les Républicains (LR) and the left-wing Parti Socialiste (PS), to a more complex multiparty one. At the local level, however, those two parties have far from disappeared.

In 2020, in our sample of cities, LR and its allies kept control of 42 percent of the cities that they held after the 2014 elections, while the PS and its allies kept control of 37 percent of the cities they previously held. When the first round did not produce a winner (when no party crossed the 50 percent threshold), those parties headed the polls in over 75 percent of the cases.

In addition, the French green and left-leaning party, Europe Écologie Les Verts, did quite well. It ran on its own in about 20 percent of our sample of cities, claimed a median 14 percent of the vote and will be on the second-round ballot in 75 cities. The party, which had scored 13.5 percent of the vote in last year’s French European Parliament election, appears to be steadily growing.

4. The far right did not break through

In France’s 2017 presidential election, Macron won the second round to defeat his opponent, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party, formerly the National Front party. Le Pen hoped to extend her party’s base beyond the few medium-size cities in which it did well in the previous municipal elections.

France’s National Front scandal has exposed the dirty little secret of Europe’s far right

In our city sample, Le Pen’s party ran 195 candidate lists, down from 297 in 2014, but up from 61 in 2008 and 128 in 2001. The party managed to win a handful of cities in the first round, including its stronghold of Hénin-Beaumont. However, it only won cities already under its control.

RN got through to the second round in 40 percent of the cities in our sample. However, that figure is much lower than it was in 2014. In 2020, on top of the few cities it won directly in the first round, RN headed the first round in only three cities, hoping to win less than 10 in total. In the second round, it will probably consolidate its support, but will not expand much.

And the big takeaways? The first round of elections tells us that neither Macron’s party or France’s far-right RN has managed to make a breakthrough at the local level. Instead, these elections seemed largely a traditional contest between the old guard left and right that Macron had managed to push aside in the 2017 presidential and legislative elections. Don’t expect this contest to change much in the second round, which is still unscheduled.

The Monkey Cage newsletter is changing shape! Sign up here to keep receiving our smart analysis.

François Briatte is assistant lecturer in political science at ESPOL (Université Catholique de Lille, France).

Marie Neihouser is a research associate at Université Laval Québec.

Camille Kelbel is a postdoctoral researcher at ESPOL (Université Catholique de Lille, France).