Local politics is a big deal in France. So much so that many national politicians — even serving Prime Ministers — simultaneously run for the mayoral office in big towns and cities. For instance, Emmanuel Macron’s Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, was resoundingly reelected as Mayor of Le Havre in yesterday’s municipal elections.
The biggest story though was the surge in support for EELV — France’s Green Party. Green candidates have swept to power in cities across the country, including Marseilles, Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg. Anne Hidalgo, the re-elected Mayor of Paris, is officially a Socialist, but is in close alliance with the Greens. Elsewhere, the Greens have run against the traditional centre-Left and came very close to unseating the long-time Mayor of Lille, Martine Aubrey, one of the most prominent figures in the Parti Socialiste.
This is a political earthquake with multiple ramifications. Looking ahead to the Presidential election in 2022, it’s still likely that Emmanuel Macron would thrash Marine Le Pen in the second round (just as he did in 2017). However, what happens in the first round is now uncertain. If the Socialists do a deal with the Greens — then Macron could be in trouble. A lot of his support comes from young, university-educated professionals. If they now swing behind the Greens, then the President might not make it through to the run-off (it was touch-and-go last time).
After yesterday, French politics is looking a lot more like Germany’s — with the Greens as the leading party of the centre-Left and the main opposition. Indeed, much the same geographical split is emerging: Greens in the city, conservatives in the countryside, populists in the most marginalised areas and socialists (or social democrats) down to their last redoubts.
Why are we seeing French and German cities go Green? Well, firstly, electoral systems allow it. Secondly, Green parties are more appealing to trendy young urbanites than the old parties of the industrial working class. And, thirdly, Greens are ready to do something about the problems of urban life — in particular traffic congestion and air pollution. By being willing to take on the tyranny of the car, Greens naturally appeal to those who least depend on personal private transport (i.e. city-centre dwellers, especially those without children).
Of course, in the shape of the Gilets Jaunes movement, France is also the prime example of what happens if you anger those who most depend on their cars and vans. These are issues that set the metropolis against the periphery — though with a reminder that the latter doesn’t start in the countryside, but from the point at which public transport provision gets patchy.
The ring-road may yet prove to be the deepest divide in 21st century politics.