A bruising setback in regional elections on Sunday has highlighted Emmanuel Macron’s failure to turn his political party into a force to be reckoned with at the local level and has whet the appetites of would-be challengers – though analysts caution against drawing lessons for next year’s presidential bout.
Blame it on Covid-19 restrictions or on the ruling party’s latest election debacle: the Élysée Palace’s summer-greeting techno party had a distinctly subdued air on Monday night, with the seated and socially distanced revellers reduced to tapping their feet in the mansion’s famous courtyard.
In past years, President Macron and his wife Brigitte had gamely joined in the dancing. But the French leader had little to celebrate just 24 hours after his party suffered another shellacking at the polls.
Macron had set his La République en marche (LREM) party two modest goals in regional elections: to gain a foothold in local government and play a “kingmaker” role in the June 27 runoff. By the end of the first round of voting, it was obvious the party had made only minimal progress in its first aim – and flopped entirely in the second.
LREM candidates picked up just 11 percent of the vote in nationwide elections marked by record-low turnout. Crucially, they failed to meet the 10 percent threshold to qualify for the runoff in five of mainland France’s 13 regions – including a key battleground where Macron had put five cabinet ministers on the ballot.
Worst of all for the French president, the elections turned out to be a shot in the arm for the one political force he is truly scared of: the traditional right wing, embodied by Les Républicains. In doing so, they whet the appetites of would-be presidential candidates from the conservative camp, who now surely fancy their chances in next year’s all-important Élysée race.
‘Party of traitors’
LREM’s dismal result on Sunday – coupled with the extraordinary rate of abstention among French youths in particular – marked a bruising defeat for a party that had pledged to revolutionise and rejuvenate French politics. It also signaled a personal setback for a president who famously touted the role of “lead climbers” in helping others to the top.
Macron spent much of June touring the country in what was effectively an election campaign in all but name. He had hoped his recent bump in popularity, aided by France’s faster-than-expected exit from lockdown, would rub off on his party.
In the Paris region, which overwhelmingly backed Macron in 2017, posters for the LREM candidate read, “I support Emmanuel Macron, I vote for Laurent Saint-Martin.” Even the timing of the vote looked favourable, coinciding with the end of France’s latest nationwide curfew.
Instead, the electoral debacle exposed the limits of the presidential party’s top-down approach, said political analyst Virginie Martin, stressing a “lack of serious efforts to put down roots at the local level”.
“The impetus always comes from above, from the Elysée Palace in particular. Everything revolves around Emmanuel Macron’s figures and very little trickles down,” Martin told FRANCE 24, highlighting the shortfalls of a “cuckoo strategy of poaching local officials from left and right in order to acquire a little notoriety at the local level”.
On Monday, LREM leader Stanislas Guerini acknowledged the party’s failure to convert four years in power at the national level into support on the ground. The vote was “a reminder that we, as the presidential majority, have work to do to build up a local presence, which is a long and laborious task that doesn't happen in one election", he told France Inter radio.
Speaking on the same radio, prominent conservative Rachida Dati, a former justice minister, had a more brutal take on the ruling party’s predicament.
“What is LREM?” Dati asked rhetorically, before delivering her zinger: “It’s a party of traitors from the left and traitors from the right, which is nothing without Emmanuel Macron.”
Who is the bulwark against Le Pen?
The French president was not the only one to witness his party falter at the polls. His main rival for the Élysée Palace, Marine Le Pen, also saw her National Rally party significantly underperform – though the ruling party could claim none of the credit.
Ever since Macron pulled a party out of his hat and upended French politics ahead of the last presidential election, the notion that LREM is best placed to stem the rise of the far right has been a cornerstone of its pitch to voters. But even that assumption was rattled on Sunday.
While few in the party harboured any hopes of winning a region, Macron had at least hoped his candidates would play a prominent role in second-round coalitions aimed at thwarting the far right. That’s why he fielded senior cabinet ministers in the northern Hauts-de-France region, hoping to force its conservative incumbent into an unwanted alliance.
But nothing went according to plan. In a humiliating defeat, the LREM ticket failed to even qualify for the runoff. Meanwhile, conservative Xavier Bertrand sailed ahead of his challenger from the right-wing National Rally, securing a springboard for his looming presidential run.
“We have released this region from the jaws of the National Front,” a triumphant Bertrand told supporters on Sunday night, referring to the National Rally by its former name. "We are, by far, the largest party in France,” added Christian Jacob, leader of the conservative Les Républicains, hailing the “collapse” of the far right.
As Françoise Fressoz wrote in Le Monde, the conservative surge and concurrent LREM flop “signalled the failure of a strategy aimed at persuading voters that Macron is the only bulwark against Le Pen”.
Comparing apples and oranges
While Macron and Le Pen’s respective parties were undoubtedly the main losers on Sunday, analysts have cautioned against rushing to conclusions regarding next year’s presidential contest – particularly based on local polls shunned by two-thirds of the electorate.
Comparing regional and presidential polls “is like comparing apples and oranges”, warned political analyst Thomas Guénolé, for whom Sunday’s abstention-tainted elections raised more questions than they answered.
“One can imagine that after a year and a half of lockdowns and curfews, voters had better things to do than take part in an election few people care about,” Guénolé told FRANCE 24. “But it doesn’t explain why far-right voters and Macron’s supporters shunned the polls even more than others.”
According to an IFOP survey, 73 percent of voters who backed Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election skipped Sunday’s regional vote and 60 percent of Macron’s backers did the same. In contrast, only 44 percent of conservative voters abstained.
The result is a highly skewed reading of the current balance of power in French politics, according to Guénolé, “based on misplaced assumptions regarding each party’s strengths and weaknesses.”
“Some will emerge from the regional elections brimming with confidence while others are down in the dumps,” he said. “The right now feels stronger than it really is, whereas Macron’s camp feels weaker. Similarly, the far right feels it has run into the ground when, in truth, it hasn’t.”