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Half a million seats and a spoiler virus: A guide to France’s municipal elections

The town hall of Belleau, in the northern Hauts-de-France region.
The town hall of Belleau, in the northern Hauts-de-France region. © Charles Platiau, REUTERS

French voters head to the polls on March 15 and 22 to elect some 35,000 mayors and more than ten times as many councillors, with the country braced for a worsening coronavirus epidemic – and President Emmanuel Macron’s party braced for a beating.

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FRANCE 24 takes a look at how the two-round election works, and what verdicts are expected from the polls.

'Pentagular' run-offs

Just over 500,000 council seats are up for grabs in the country’s 34,970 municipalities. All mayoral candidates are required to present gender-balanced “lists”, or tickets, for their council. The seats are allocated on a proportional basis, with a “majority bonus” for towns of more than 1,000 inhabitants.

If a single ticket wins more than 50% of votes in the first round, there is no need for a run-off. If there is no outright winner, the tickets that picked up at least 10% of votes face off in a second round. In practice, this can lead to three-way (triangulaire), four-way (quadrangulaire) or even five-way (pentagulaire) contests in round two.

There’s a further complication: tickets that won at least 5% of the ballot in the first round are allowed to merge with those that qualified for the run-off.

The big three: Paris, Marseille and Lyon

The electoral process gets even more complex when it comes to France’s three largest cities – Paris, Marseille and Lyon – each of which is divided into arrondissements (districts).

The capital city has 20 arrondissements and 17 separate elections: one for the first four arrondissements, which have been lumped together, and one each for the remaining 16. Marseille has 16 arrondissements distributed across eight sectors, each of which has its own election, while Lyon has a separate election in each of its nine arrondissements.

In all three cities a third of elected councillors sit on the city-wide municipal council (the rest sit only on the district councils). Their number depends on how populous each district is. Thus, the French capital's 15th arrondissement sends 18 councillors to the Conseil de Paris (Paris Council), while the 6th and 8th have just three apiece. The municipal council then goes on to elect the city’s mayor – much as the Electoral College in the United States elects the country’s president. And just like in the US, critics point out that the mayor need not necessarily win the popular vote, as was the case in 2001 when Bertrand Delanoë, in Paris, and Gérard Collomb, in Lyon, were both elected despite narrowly losing the popular suffrage.

Brexit casualties

All French nationals and European Union citizens aged 18 or above are eligible to vote – meaning Britons lost that right as of January 31, when Brexit became effective.

Due to Britain’s EU divorce, the 760 British local councillors in France – many of them deeply invested in their communities – are also barred from seeking re-election. Their disenfranchisement is a blow to the rural communities that Britons had helped repopulate in recent years, where motivated candidates are often hard to come by.

Virus-proof pens

Mayors are traditionally regarded as France’s most popular – or least unpopular – elected officials, which generally translates into relatively high turnout. However, the worsening coronavirus outbreak looks set to dampen voters’ enthusiasm.

Macron warned on Tuesday that France was "just at the beginning" of an outbreak that has already killed 33 people in the country and infected more than 1,700. But his government has ruled out postponing the election, despite warnings that fear of contamination could be a big turn-off for polling station volunteers and voters alike. As many as 28% of French voters are considering shunning the polls for fear of catching the bug – particularly in the cities, according to an Ifop survey carried out earlier this month.

“Vote with your gloves, hats and masks – but do come and vote!” conservative lawmaker Eric Woerth pleaded on Tuesday as Health Minister Olivier Véran assured voters the election would be “no more dangerous” than a trip to the supermarket. The government has announced steps to facilitate proxy voting for the elderly and those in self-isolation. Antibacterial gels will also be on hand at polling stations around the country, with panic-buying stoking fears of an imminent shortage.

Some cities have adopted more peculiar measures to allay voters’ fears: the mayor of Montpellier, in southern France, has ordered a whopping 320,000 pens to ensure voters can sign the register without fearing contagion, while in nearby Béziers voters will ”exceptionally” be allowed to bring their own pens, provided the ink is black. 

Grim prospects for ruling party

Three years after Macron swept to power on a promise of "revolution", leading an army of political upstarts to triumph in parliamentary elections, the picture is looking very different for his ruling party ahead of its first municipal test. In a sign of its difficulty in recruiting candidates, La République en Marche (LREM) has presented lists in just one out of four towns with 10,000 or more inhabitants – a far cry from the 2017 national elections when dissident politicians from the left and right queued up to join Macron's camp.

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Polls show the ruling party struggling in the March 15-22 votes, which come amid widespread anger over the government's decision to force through an unpopular pension reform by decree. The municipal elections also follow the "Yellow Vest" rebellion, which highlighted widespread anger in rural France against a leader seen as favouring urban elites. And while Macron was banking on big-city wins to offset a widely expected beating in rural areas, his candidates are struggling in places like Paris and Lyon, where LREM swept the board in 2017.

Back to left-right divide?

In the French capital – the crown jewel Macron was so desperate to claim – the ruling party’s flagging campaign took a grotesque turn in late February when a leaked sex video forced a last-minute change of candidate for mayor. Since her late entry in the race, former health minister Agnès Buzyn has been trailing both the Socialist incumbent, Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and her resurgent conservative rival, former justice minister Rachida Dati.

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In Paris and elsewhere, LREM’s declining fortunes have fueled talk of a revival of the left-right divide that Macron had seemingly consigned to the history books only three years ago. But two other players are looking to spoil the party. The Greens, long a marginal force in French politics, could pull off some of the biggest upsets, buoyed by a strong showing in last year’s European elections and a new wave of environmental activism among French youth. And the far-right National Rally, formerly known as the National Front, is hoping to add to the dozen municipalities it currently holds.

Marine Le Pen’s party has long been shut out of power by the two-round voting system, which traditionally sees other parties coalesce to defeat its candidates in run-off votes. But the anti-immigrant outfit looks almost certain to capture its first city with a population above 100,000 this time around, with Le Pen’s former partner Louis Aliot a hot favourite in the southern city of Perpignan.

 

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