Not yet four years ago, a 38-year-old neophyte politician resigned from François Hollande’s cabinet to begin his own improbable bid for France’s presidency. Capitalizing on a wave of voter disgust with the old guard, Emmanuel Macron fashioned himself as a reformer unbeholden to the establishment. He even created his own political party to prove it.
That chutzpah paid off. After he became President in May, 2017, Mr. Macron’s upstart La République En Marche crushed the established parties in legislative elections held the following month, winning a rare outright majority in the National Assembly.
With an ambitious agenda and charisma to burn, Mr. Macron seemed unstoppable.
Now, it seems as if he’s been stopped in his tracks. The wave of dégagisme – or desire to clear out the old political class – that brought him to power risks overwhelming him, too. As he faces re-election in early 2022, voters have grown weary of his endless lectures and constant attempts to reinvent his presidency with bold-sounding initiatives that don’t quite pass the smell test.
Mr. Macron’s LREM suffered a severe drubbing in the second and final round of municipal elections held on Sunday. Turnout was abysmally low for a French election, as fears of the coronavirus kept many voters away from the polls. But the result was nevertheless a repudiation of Mr. Macron personally, as, one by one, voters rejected his hand-picked mayoralty candidates.
LREM’s bid to take over Paris City Hall blew up in Mr. Macron’s face. He and his strategists at the Élysée Palace had spent months plotting to oust the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, considered a personal rival of the President. But Mr. Macron’s first choice to take on Ms. Hidalgo pulled out of the race in February in the throes of a sexting scandal.
Mr. Macron then tapped his health minister, Agnès Buzyn, to run against Ms. Hidalgo. The optics could not have been worse, leading to criticism that Ms. Buzyn and her boss were putting their own political ambitions ahead of fighting the emerging pandemic. Ms. Buzyn finished third on Sunday with less than 15 per cent of the vote, failing even to win a seat on the Paris City Council.
Ms. Hidalgo pulled off a stunning re-election victory by joining forces with other progressive parties to run a common list of candidates for city council. She emerged from Sunday’s vote as a national political force, and perhaps even a presidential candidate in 2022. While Ms. Hidalgo’s war on the car made her a lightning rod for many, who accused her of putting ideology above the economy, she has proved adept at taking on her critics with unflappable resolve.
Outside of Paris, the environmentalist party Europe Écologie Les Verts scored breakthrough victories. Its candidate even knocked off Mr. Macron’s former interior minister, Gérard Collomb, in Lyon, where he had served as mayor for almost two decades. EELV also won mayoralty races in Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Grenoble, turning the party into a major power broker.
There are now rumours that Mr. Macron might seek to recruit Yannick Jadot, an EELV member of the European Parliament and his party’s most high-profile politician, to replace Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. That could be complicated, however. Mr. Philippe, a former member of the centre-right Les Républicains, has become far more popular than Mr. Macron on the heels of a steady performance during the pandemic. And on Sunday, he won re-election as mayor of Le Havre with nearly 60-per-cent support, raising speculation he might run for president himself.
On Monday, Mr. Macron wasted no time in trying to revive his presidency by promising not one, but two referendums by the end of 2021. The first plebiscite would involve a proposed amendment to the French Constitution to include the fight against climate change as one of the fundamental principles of the republic, alongside secularism, egalitarianism and democracy. A second referendum would be held in 2021 on specific proposals to cut carbon emissions.
Mr. Macron wants to establish his environmental bona fides before he faces voters himself in 2022. But the gambit could backfire if the proposals are seen as harmful to the economy, especially as France faces its worst recession in 80 years, or, conversely, if progressive voters think the measures do not go far enough to radically reduce greenhouse gases.
Mr. Macron has been counting on a second-ballot runoff against Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National to hold on to his job in 2022. But Sunday’s municipal vote muddies the water, putting Mr. Macron at risk of becoming France’s third one-term president in a row.
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