PARIS • French people went to the polls wearing face masks yesterday for the final round of municipal elections expected to yield a low voter turnout and a rebuke for the party of President Emmanuel Macron.
The opening round was held amid high contagion anxiety on March 15, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was gaining deadly momentum, but the second phase, scheduled for March 22, was put off after France went into lockdown.
Despite a record abstention rate of 55 per cent, the first round yielded a decisive outcome in some 85 per cent, or 30,000, communes.
This means political power remained up for grabs yesterday in about 5,000 undecided municipal councils including the key centres of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and Strasbourg.
Some 16.5 million people are registered to vote, with those turning out required to wear a mask and urged to use their own pens to minimise coronavirus contagion risk.
Analysts expect that the polls’ results will confirm that Mr Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party – founded by the president ahead of his 2017 election win – has failed to gain a strong foothold at the local level.
The party turned in lacklustre showings in March – notably in Paris where Mr Macron’s candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, came third.
Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo is forecast to hold on to the capital.
With a death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the coronavirus outbreak.
The country went into lockdown on March 17 – two days after the first election round.
Most restrictions have now been eased, but there is widespread anger at the government over shortages of personal protective equipment, including face masks, in the early stages of the pandemic.
During the outbreak, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe – an unshowy technocratic – saw his popularity rise to a level higher than that of Mr Macron, who critics say is a president of the rich and out of touch with ordinary people.
Paris is buzzing with speculation that a poor showing by the LREM in the polls could see Mr Macron announce a major Cabinet reshuffle, possibly axing Mr Philippe, who campaigned to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.
Holding two executive posts is allowed under French law.
“Although Macron has done a pretty good job of managing Covid-19, he has not been rewarded by his public,” said Mr Mujtaba Rahman, Europe managing director for the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
“A new prime minister, probably further to the left, would allow Macron to claim he is delivering on his promise to ensure the ‘second act’ of his presidency takes note of failings revealed by his handling of the Covid-19 crisis.”
With 22 months to go to the next presidential election, “Macron is also tempted to make the change because of Philippe’s soaring popularity”, Mr Rahman said.
Mr Macron’s main challenger at the national level is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (RN).
A poll by Harris Interactive Epoka last Friday showed that 44 per cent of respondents had a favourable opinion of Mr Macron, and 51 per cent were positive on Mr Philippe, a jump of 13 points for the premier in a few months.
“There will not be any significant conquests for LREM,” said Mr Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster with the Kantar Centre on the Future of Europe.
“This will deprive the ruling party of a territorial anchor that it could have depended on in future elections,” he said.
Despite an abysmal performance in the last presidential elections, France’s Socialists are still expected to keep key regional centres, including Paris, where three women are vying for the top job.
There will also be close attention on the green Europe Ecology – The Greens party, which has its eye on the Alpine hub of Grenoble as well as Strasbourg and Lyon.
In Marseille, leftist Michele Rubirola hopes to cause a sensation by taking France’s second city from the right after a quarter of a century of control.
For Ms Le Pen’s RN, the big prize would be the south-eastern city of Perpignan, which could become the stage for the first far-right takeover of a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since Toulon in 1995.