Saturday, 27 June 2020 07:25

France's Macron set for Covid test in local vote

The crabs on Anne-Marie Darchen's fish stall move lazily across the white counter. The morning rush has died down in Le Havre's daily fish market, and a good number of those left milling around in the sun near the port are canvassing votes for Sunday's local election.

Ms Darchen doesn't think much of the campaign so far. "Apart from talking about coronavirus," she says. "The rest? Pfff."

Local elections aren't meant to be about national issues, but that's tough when your candidate is the prime minister.

Edouard Philippe's face - the face of France's battle with the pandemic - dominates the glossy leaflets being handed out to passers-by.

Le Havre fishmonger
There's been plenty of time for the pandemic to influence feelings here.

France held the first round of voting three months ago as coronavirus took hold - a decision President Emmanuel Macron was widely criticised for. More than half of all voters avoided polling stations entirely.

Abstention is still expected to be high for the run-off contests on Sunday, many of them in France's most important cities.

What next for France's lockdown PM?
The current centre-right mayor, Jean-Baptiste Gastinne, who's a running-mate for Edouard Philippe, told me the prime minister's handling of the coronavirus crisis had put the wind into the sails of the campaign.

"We had a lot of cases in the east of France, then the virus travelled to Paris, and next it would have been Normandy," he said. "So for us, here in Le Havre, the lockdown arrived bang on time. There weren't too many cases, too many victims, and our hospitals weren't swamped like in other regions."

That's all very well, say voters like Anne-Marie Darchen, but the problem with electing a prime minister as mayor is that "he won't be here".

Mr Philippe has said that, if he wins on Sunday as he's predicted to, he won't take up the job until his role as prime minister comes to an end. That could mean waiting until 2022.

Then again, says political analyst Bruno Cautres, he could be looking for work much sooner. President Macron is rumoured to want a change of prime minister, to signal a fresh start for the government, post-Covid-19.

Why Macron has a dangerous decision to make
"Edouard Philippe comes from the centre right," Mr Cautres explained. "And the opinion polls say that Macron is quite popular on the centre right, so it would be risky for him to say 'we have a good person, doing a good job, who's very popular - but I'm not keeping him'."

The other danger for the president, he says, is that he looks like the man who's firing his deputy for being more popular.

Mr Philippe's approval ratings nationally have risen strongly during the crisis - unlike those of President Macron, which have dipped.

Bruno Cautres says the prime minister quickly found his role in the crisis as an "action man", whereas Mr Macron was seen as making big speeches but taking no action.

"Normally in the French system the prime minister is a shield for the president," he says. "Today, it's maybe the opposite."

Macron and his awkward alliances
There are other problems for Mr Macron in this election, too.

Le Havre is only the most prominent example of his party, La République En Marche (Republic on the Move), allying with centre-right candidates across the country.

Mr Macron promised when he ran for office that his party - and his government - would bridge old political divisions by being both left and right. Not for the first time here, many feel the left has been left behind.


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