June 10, 2022

Chartres, Eure-et-Loir

The young parliamentary candidate strides down the street looking for people who are local and over 50. I follow. We meet mostly Americans, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Britons.

“See, we have been invaded by foreigners,” jokes Ladislas Vergne, 30, the local candidate for the centre-right Les Républicains. When we do identify local people, they make bored or angry faces and dart away. Only one or two are prepared to chat — mostly to complain about all politics and all politicians.

“You’ve been rifling through our pockets for years — all of you,” says a well-dressed woman in her 70s. “Nothing ever changes. What’s the point in voting?” She concedes that she voted for President Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election in April. “What choice did we have?” Yet she insists that she will not vote in the first round of France’s parliamentary elections on Sunday — not even for Macron’s centrist alliance.

“I’m afraid this is rather typical,” says Vergne. “I don’t let it get me down. Younger people aren’t going to vote on Sunday — that’s clear. With people over 50, there is always a chance they will vote, whatever they say. Seeing the candidate, and exchanging a few words with him, can make all the difference.”

Vergne is one of a handful of young, dynamic, first-time parliamentary candidates standing this weekend for the once powerful but much-diminished, centre-right party, Les Républicains (LR). He is, in other words, the future of a party which may have no future.

Chartres — the beautiful cathedral town 50 miles south-west of Paris — is as good a place as any to take the temperature of France before the two rounds of legislative elections this weekend and next. The first constituency of the Eure-et-Loir département contains a chunk of urban France, a ring of suburban France, and a large swathe of rich, cereals-producing countryside. The early 13th century cathedral is visible for many kilometres around, floating like a limestone ship on a sea of wheat and barley.

Provincial towns such as Chartres (population: 40,000) will largely decide whether Macron will win another parliamentary majority this month. The Left-Green alliance Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologiste et Sociale (Nupes) will do well in big cities and in multi-racial suburbs. Macron’s centrist alliance, Ensemble!, needs to win the towns.

The incumbent in Chartres is a senior Macronist, Guillaume Kasbarian, a member of the executive bureau of Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM). The seat was held for decades by the ever-changing brands of the centre-Right — Gaullistes, Chiraquiens and Sarkozystes. In 2017, when Macron turned French politics inside out, it fell like many similar seats to the centrist LREM.

Kasbarian is favourite to be re-elected, just as President Macron was once favourite to retain his overall majority in the National Assembly. However, doubts about the outcome of the election are growing — both here and nationally.

The most recent polls and projections suggest that Macron’s centrist alliance will win the biggest bloc of seats but will struggle to reach the 289 seats that it needs for an overall majority in the lower house of parliament. Without such a majority, Macron’s second term will be even more troubled than the first and less likely to complete his promised reforms of pensions, hospitals and schools.

“It’s a very tricky election to read,” Vergne tells me. “If I can get into the second round against the Macronist candidate, I can unite the anti-Macron vote and I can win. In fact, I am convinced that I would win. If the Left-Ecologist alliance candidate (Quentin Guillemain) gets into Round Two, he will be defeated by a big, big margin.”

Ladislas Vergne campaigning in Chartres

“The question is: ‘can I get into the second round?’ With so many saying they won’t vote, I’ve genuinely no idea what score I might get on Sunday. 10%, 15%, over 20% — all are possible. To beat the ecologist to second place, I need to be in the low 20s”.

More than two candidates can, in theory, reach the second round in French parliamentary elections. To qualify in third place, you need 12.5% of the registered vote. Since the national turnout is predicted to be around 47% (a record low), that means 30% of the actual vote in many constituencies.

There will therefore be very few three-cornered contests in the second round next Sunday — perhaps none. This could favour Macron. The leader of the Left-Green alliance, the anti-Nato, anti-EU Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is feared by voters of the centre-Left and moderate and hard-Right. If presented with only two choices, they are likely to vote anti-Mélenchon in round two rather than anti-Macron. If they vote at all, that is…

Macron has been accused, including by some in his own camp, of playing a dangerous game since his victory in the Presidential election on 24 April. Far from stoking interest in the parliamentary elections, he vanished from the domestic scene and took an unprecedented four weeks to choose what was mostly a predictable new government and Prime Minister — the former employment minister, Elisabeth Borne.

His strategy was to preserve the momentum from his presidential victory and prevent an anti-Macron counter-movement from developing. But how can you freeze-frame momentum? The effect has only been to deflate interest in a parliamentary campaign which was already regarded by many people as either a “done deal” or “one election too many”.

If Left-wing voters turn out in large numbers on Sunday and the Macron voters do not, the President’s camp could be in trouble. An outright victory for the Left in the second round — forcing Macron to appoint a Left-wing prime minister — may look unlikely. But an awkward, hung parliament in which the Macron alliance has most seats but no working majority is still possible.

The centre-right LR are also disturbing Macron’s calculations by showing more signs of life than expected. The party was pronounced defunct by many commentators after their candidate Valérie Pécresse scored only 4.8% in the first round of the presidential election on 10 April. However, LR candidates have been putting up a spirited fight in the parliamentary campaign. In the latest polls, the party is projected to win up to 55 seats — more than Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, which has a much bigger share of the first-round popular vote.

I watched Vergne film a social media appeal in front of Chartres cathedral. He went through five or six takes. (You can see the results here.) His pitch was simple. You can choose Macron and “change-nothing-all-is-fine”. You can choose Mélenchon and “lets-turn-everything upside-down”. Or you can choose concrete action on inflation and insecurity with Les Républicains. Vote for a candidate like me who wants to work for Chartres rather than Paris.

Vergne, although only 30, is a very old-fashioned kind of French politician. In the new “Macronworld”, ambitious young people prefer to skip local involvement and parachute themselves into national politics (as Macron did in 2017). But Vergne has adopted the traditional French approach employed successfully by the likes of Jacques Chirac, François Mitterrand and François Hollande. He has implanted himself in a part of provincial France where he has strong family connections. He studied at two of the finishing schools of the French political elite, Science-Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), before winning a council seat in Chartres and then becoming assistant mayor.

“It’s an unfashionable approach these days but that’s not what worries me,” he explains. “Having roots in provincial France — understanding the way that things look from outside Paris — is as important as it ever was. What worries me is the future of centre-right politics in France. Can Les Républicains survive? Nobody can be sure of that. But I think the centre-Right, in some form, will thrive once again once Macron vanishes from the scene in 2027. There is no long-term future for Macronism without Macron.”

But after a day on the campaign trail, something else worries me. Why should so many people in a town like Chartres — with local problems but prosperous enough — refuse to engage with a young man who is willing to commit his life to moderate, democratic politics? The number of people who avoided political conversation was, frankly, unsettling. Most were over 50-years-old, in other words, from the generations who do vote.

The blame for such attitudes can be shared around: on the older generations of politicians, on the collapse of the old party allegiances, on social media, on mainstream media, on steeply rising prices, on exhaustion after two years of the Covid pandemic. Perhaps some blame should also be attached to the voters themselves.

But the plague-on-all-your-houses mood in a typical Macron-supporting medium-sized town seven weeks after he was re-elected was disturbing. Whether or not Macron wins a majority in parliament over the next two Sundays, he faces a tormented second term.