Saturday is a market day in the town just outside of Paris where I live and at election time, activists are out in force, handing out leaflets, fielding questions and drumming up support for their respective candidates. Despite the absence of many voters over the long Ascension Day weekend, this Saturday marked the real opening of the campaign for the parliamentary elections on June 11 and 18. Candidates and activists were testing their arguments and voters were weighing them up. There is clearly everything to fight for. The situation in this constituency, as in many others, is by no means clear-cut and the outcome very uncertain.
Our MP for the past 24 years is over 70 and not standing for re-election, like 216 other MPs in the outgoing Assemblée Nationale. The man selected to succeed him is a 45 year-old career politician called Gilles Boyer. He is a former political advisor to Alain Juppé and a close ally of the current Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe. He might therefore be expected to support the current government and campaign in its favour. But the local situation is a little more complicated: our sitting MP is on the right wing of the Les Républicains and has long been a close ally of Nicholas Sarkozy. He even romped home in the first round of voting in the parliamentary elections following Sarkozy’s accession to the presidency in 2007. His supporters would undoubtedly be put off by any successor moving significantly towards the centre and declaring his support for Emmanuel Macron.
Such considerations must have been uppermost in the minds of Macron’s party, Les Républicains en Marche (REM), who have, at the last minute, selected their own candidate, Jacques Maire, the son of a moderate trade-union leader in the 1970s and 80s. He has the advantage of living locally and ticks all the right boxes in terms of his background and experience, partly as a diplomat, partly in the private sector and with some experience of local politics, albeit in Brittany, another part of France altogether. The activists handing out leaflets for Gilles Boyer were adamant that their candidate was in the opposition. Those canvassing for Jacques Maire were insistent that their candidate would help implement the new President’s programme.
Similar scenarios must be playing out in many other constituencies throughout France, as candidates and their parties continue to navigate the shock waves to the political establishment unleashed by Emmanuel Macron’s election. As I wrote in a previous post, les Républicains seem unsure of what voters are expecting them to do: support or oppose, oppose or support? And now that the Parti Socialiste has openly split into warring factions, candidates of the centre-left will face a similar dilemma. They will probably all be spinning slightly different messages to voters according to the constituency they are standing in and whether they are incumbents or new faces. Only the extremes of both left and right will know exactly where they stand but, curiously, in this constituency at least, their posters are conspicuously absent from the hoardings and none of their representatives were anywhere to be seen on the market yesterday. Macron’s candidates from REM, mostly political novices, are hoping to ride on the new President’s bandwagon and present themselves as the surest supporters of his mould-breaking programme. As will undoubtedly be the case in most constituencies, the outcome of the first round of voting will depend largely on how voters react to the candidates they talk to or listen to in public meetings. The second round is totally unpredictable at this stage, as political strategies will be cobbled together on the hoof, depending on the outcome of the first round.
In this constituency, given existing political affiliations but also the triumph of Macron on May 7, Boyer and Maire will probably face each other in the run-off on June 18. Judging by the number of hoardings outside each polling station, there will be a total of ten candidates, all but two of them being also-rans. A worthy looking local lady is standing for the Parti Socialiste, but you have to look very carefully to spot its endorsement in the form of a very small logo in the bottom corner of her election poster. No left-wing candidate has been returned to parliament from this well-off constituency since 1958. Apart from that, we do have the attraction of a candidate from the Alliance Royale, a distinguished looking elderly gentleman photographed wearing a royal blue blazer and a neatly trimmed handlebar moustache and beard. He has clearly been encouraged to stand again by the grand total of 67 votes that he polled at the last election in 2012. Will he endorse the right-wing candidate, Boyer, in the run-off or go for the next best thing to a king, the representative of the republican monarch? Voters will no doubt hang on his every word on the evening of June 11.
As I left the market yesterday, a young woman activist with République en Marche emblazoned across her t-shirt was taking a photograph of a small trestle table on which an activist from Les Républicains had set out his wares. “You’re not supposed to have a table”, she called out as she stowed away her smartphone, “it’s against the rules!”
The campaign has only just started and it already promises to be a blistering affair!