Storming France’s City Halls

Amid the collapse of France’s historical parties, Emmanuel Macron is presiding over the most unstable political climate in decades. As municipal elections loom in March, the forces of the Left are showing rare signs of unity — feeding hopes they can turn social revolt into a challenge for the presidency itself.

City Hall, Toulouse, France, 2012. Sergey Ashmarin / Wikimedia

The French left has seen better days.

Since the election of President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the country’s smorgasbord of left-wing parties has struggled to make much impact on policy, let alone the national conversation. While controversial reform attempts have fallen like dominoes — first over labor law and the railway system, then unemployment insurance and now pensions — public frustrations have largely failed to translate into political gains for progressives. But with fresh elections come fresh hopes. And when France heads to the polls this March to elect its mayors and municipal councils, the country’s deeply-fragmented Left hopes voters will help buck the trend.

With around 35,000 municipalities up for grabs — the highest such figure in the European Union — there is, at the very least, no shortage of races worthy of optimism. In a handful of locales, new grassroots-driven alliances are aiming to swing their cities to the Left. In other municipalities, more established coalitions are working together to try and capture city hall. In other cities still, left-wing parties — namely the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Socialist Party (PS) — aim to defend their majorities.

This is all taking place in what’s arguably the most unstable political climate in the history of the Fifth Republic: an immense source of uncertainty, no doubt, but also one that holds promise if left-wing candidates can play their cards right. The mass strikes over pension reform — impressive for both their level of public support and duration — could also provide an unexpected boost. As the president’s La République en Marche (LREM) party defends what remains an unpopular overhaul of France’s retirement system — with a vote scheduled in the National Assembly in mid-February — the various parties of the Left can point to their support for the movement and broader defense of France’s beleaguered welfare state. Naturally, municipal elections tend to focus on the meat and potatoes of local governance. But the national context could be hard for voters to ignore.

Citizen Insurgencies

Of France’s major metropolises, none has seemed more likely to swing left than Marseille. It’s a famously diverse and working-class port city—and also one in which a plurality of voters opted for Jean Luc-Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (LFI), or “France Unbowed,” in the first round of the most recent presidential election. Yet it’s also something of a political enigma. For the last twenty-five years, France’s second city has been governed by the right-wing Jean-Claude Gaudin, a fossilized product of Southern power-brokers who recently celebrated his eightieth birthday. Low voter turnout has proven vital to Gaudin’s success throughout the years and, more recently, has precipitated the rise of even darker forces. In last year’s European elections — in which a meager four in ten participated — Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) received more votes than any other list.

But with Gaudin finally stepping down this spring, Marseille’s left has seized the moment. The brand new Printemps marseillais or “Marseille Spring” coalition boasts the support of the Socialists, Communists, and LFI. While the three are rivals on the national level — and bitter ones at that — party officials and activists in Marseille share a sense that the costs of going it alone are too high. As Benoît Payan, the head of the Socialist opposition in city council and a supporter of Marseille Spring, told me over the phone last November: “In the end, what brings us together is more important than what differentiates us.”

In Marseille, like many other cities, alliances between left-wing parties aren’t just optional — they’re all but essential for their component parts to stand a chance of governing. They’re also encouraged by the rules of municipal elections, which often last two rounds: If no list wins an outright majority after the first round, every ticket with at least 10 percent support qualifies for the run-off phase. At this point, qualifying lists are authorized to merge with one another, while tickets that received at least 5 percent in the first round can also throw their support behind another qualifying list. In practical terms, the system encourages deal-making to construct majorities.

Such pacts are often made between rounds, but alliances that are more mature present their own advantages. Coalitions that have already achieved unity before the first round can focus on campaigning from start to finish rather than devoting precious time to horse-trading behind closed doors. They can also point to a coherent message and platform, all the while riding any momentum generated from a strong first-round result. That’s precisely what Marseille Spring aims to do: leapfrog both the mainstream right and far-right candidates ahead of the run-off phase.

Grassroots pressure has also proven pivotal. In Marseille, the drive to unite has been fueled by a sense of urgency since the November 2018 tragedy on the rue d’Aubagne, in which two dilapidated buildings collapsed downtown leaving six people dead. In the aftermath of the disaster — which quickly came to symbolize widespread public neglect for low-income residents — community activists began drumming up support for a united Left ticket. Conversations launched by citizen collectives ultimately culminated in the formation of Marseille Spring. The group also notably has the support of the local branch of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) — the militant labor union that rarely explicitly endorses candidates for office.

To be sure, the coalition faces its share of hurdles. For one, Marseille Greens have decided against backing the alliance, vowing instead to run their own list, at least for now. At the same time, unaffiliated ex-Socialist senator Samia Ghali is mounting her own campaign, threatening to siphon away votes. Finally, the coalition itself has struggled mightily over who should head the list. Some in LFI were opposed to getting behind a Socialist, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who represents a Marseille district in the National Assembly.

Nevertheless, the alliance appears to have resolved the dilemma in early January when it settled on Michèle Rubirola of the Green Party to head the ticket. A doctor and elected official in the council of the local département, Rubirola now has backing from the alliance’s three major parties. “It’s amazing that someone’s able to bring everyone together, to have everyone’s confidence,” says Théo Challande, another dissident Green closely involved in Marseille Spring. “Maybe there’s only one person able to do it and it’s Michèle Rubirola.”

Unity isn’t the only impressive thing about the coalition. As the product of pressure from below, Marseille Spring places a premium on what supporters call “citizen engagement.” Its bylaws require decisions to be approved by a parliament that shares power between a “political” branch and a “citizen” branch, handing grassroots activists a sizable amount of authority. Théo Challande says that model has helped to attract support and fuel a general buzz around the alliance. “These are people who live in and understand their city,” he says of the group’s supporters. “It’s this understanding and proximity to this city, these links to the ground, that make unity possible.”

As the campaign heats up in February, perhaps the biggest question in Marseille is whether the Greens will ultimately rally behind the alliance. An eventual deal may well wait until after the first round on March 15. Although for backers Marseille Spring, there’s no question when they’d prefer it to happen: the sooner, the better.

Red (and Pink) Cities

Another city that seems ripe for the picking is Toulouse, which resembles Marseille in more than a few ways. Known as La Ville Rose for the hue of its terra-cotta buildings, the Southwestern city trends leftward in national elections and backed Mélenchon in 2017; it’s also currently governed by a right-wing mayor and has witnessed the emergence of a grassroots-led organization intent on restoring power to the city’s progressive majority.

Toulouse’s Archipel Citoyen, or Citizens’ Archipelago, features a decentralized structure that emphasizes consensus-based decision-making and input from local activists. Formed back in 2017, it’s since won support from local branches of the Greens, LFI, the Pirate Party, and Place Publique, a small, newly formed party that allied with the Socialists in last year’s European elections. The group has also adapted an audacious method for choosing at least some of its candidates. While Green city councilor Antoine Maurice is the collective’s candidate for mayor, a sixth of the list behind him has been selected at random, drawn by lot.

“In our analysis of the democratic crisis, we observe, of course, that there’s a divide between the political world in general and between citizens — a mistrust and a feeling that, in the end, politics is reserved for certain people and certain categories,” Antoine Maurice tells me. “On the contrary, we have the conviction that all residents are able to decide what’s good for their city and thus have the capacity to be elected themselves in the city of Toulouse. Drawing lots is a way to give legitimacy back to residents in the city so they can decide the affairs that concern them.”

Still, the path to victory could be tricky. The Socialist and Communist parties have joined together to endorse a separate candidate. Meanwhile, Toulouse’s former mayor Pierre Cohen is running on his own list entirely, backed by Génération.s., a small party founded by former Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon in 2017. Depending on who qualifies for the second round, inter-left alliances seem hard to avoid.

When asked about eventually partnering with one of those other tickets, Maurice says it’s up to Toulouse voters to decide. Either way, he insists momentum is on the side of Citizens’ Archipelago. “It’s the list that’s bringing people together,” the candidate says. “It’s the list that knows to bring together citizen and political forces that span the spectrum of the Left and the ecologists. We’re seeing in Toulouse a dynamic of bringing people together has taken hold.”

Amiens is yet another city that an upstart coalition could swing to the Left. A former industrial hub just 125 kilometers north of Paris, it’s the hometown of not just President Macron but also François Ruffin of LFI. Dubbed “The French Michael Moore,” the latter made a career as a journalist and filmmaker before his successful election to Parliament in 2017. In a recent book, Ruffin called for the creation of a “popular ecological front” to bring together left-leaning voters with disaffected working-class electors. It may well happen in his hometown. While no coalition has been finalized in Amiens, talks are ongoing and just about every ingredient that makes up the French left’s “soup of logos” is at the table: LFI, PCF, PS, Génération.s, Place Publique, and the Greens. The sitting mayor, meanwhile, has been endorsed by President Macron’s LREM party.

It may pale in scale to developments on the other side of the Pyrenees, but for anyone hoping to transform and democratize local government in France, an obligatory point of reference is the city of Grenoble. A university town of roughly 160,000 nestled in the foothills of the Alps, it’s currently governed by the Greens and parties that now make up LFI. Under the leadership of Mayor Éric Piolle, elected in 2014, the city has overseen a number of emblematic — if somewhat modest — reforms such as an end to street advertising and limiting cars downtown. Piolle is running for reelection in March, promising to double down on his eco-friendly policies and to defend public services.

Winning Conventionally and Playing Defense

Of course, there are other hotspots that left-wing parties hope to capture, albeit through more conventional means. The Norman port city of Le Havre is at the top of the list. Governed by Edouard Philippe until he left office to serve as Macron’s prime minister in 2017, Philippe’s successor resigned last March as the press investigated allegations from several woman claiming to have received unsolicited nude photos from him. It’s still held by the right wing. While there have been various calls to unite the Left, only one candidate, Communist Jean-Paul Lecoq, has thrown his hat into the race thus far.

Meanwhile, France’s third-largest city Lyon might be a longshot, but left-wing parties there are in talks to mount a challenge to Mayor Gérard Collomb, a former Socialist who broke ranks to join Macron’s LREM and who served as the government’s interior minister until 2018. Reims and St Etienne are two other key cities that could flip, while Montpellier is an especially complicated case: The current mayor is an ex-Socialist who backed Macron’s run for president and who now faces competition from multiple left lists: one backed by the PS and PCF, another backed by the Greens, and yet another from LFI.

At the same time, left-wing parties aim to defend cities they currently govern. For the Socialists, that includes Rennes, Nantes, and Lille, the latter led by the indefatigable Martine Aubry, a Socialist power broker who’s been in city hall since 2001. While it’s an understatement to say the PS has struggled on the national level since the departure of President François Hollande, the party continues to maintain solid support on the ground. Polls are largely favorable to Socialist incumbents in each of these cities.

Meanwhile, in the French capital, it’s not the Left but the center that’s fragmented. Paris was supposed to be the crowning achievement of LFEM’s foray into municipal politics, but Macron’s party has instead split into two rival candidacies. That could pave the way for incumbent Anne Hidalgo’s Socialist coalition to be reelected, though uncertainty persists over whether she can still count on the support of the Greens. Finally, the Communist Party — which like the PS retains more local ground support than its national vote tallies would suggest — is hoping to defend the remnants of its once mighty “red belt” around Paris, particularly the suburban cities of Saint-Denis and Montreuil.

All in all, the landscape is surprisingly not that unfavorable to the Left — a clear contrast from a national discourse increasingly dominated by the opposition between Macron and Le Pen. That’s not to say the president’s record won’t matter at the polls. In addition to broad public disapproval, especially among low-income and working-class people, pension reforms could further motivate those looking to stick it to the government. Some of these voters will undoubtedly flock to the National Rally, but on the other side of the spectrum, France’s rival left-wing parties can all point to consistent opposition to the unpopular reform package.

Of course, it’ll take more than just a few positive results in a single election cycle to help turn things around, but a strong showing in March could help pave the way for a revitalized French left in the not-so-distant future. And with the 2022 presidential election approaching, it might also — just maybe — show the benefits of working together.