Macron Braces for Setback in French Local Polls

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French people went to the polls wearing face masks Sunday for the final round of municipal elections expected to yield a low voter turnout and a rebuke for the party of President Emmanuel Macron.

The opening round was held amid high contagion anxiety on March 15 just as the COVID-19 epidemic was gaining deadly momentum, but the second phase, scheduled for March 22, was put off after France went into lockdown.

Despite a record abstention rate of 55 percent, the first round yielded a decisive outcome in some 85 percent, or 30,000, French communes.

This means political power remains up for grabs Sunday in about 5,000 undecided municipal councils including the key centers of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg.

Some 16.5 million people are registered to cast a ballot, with those turning out required to wear a face mask and urged to bring their own pens to minimize coronavirus contagion risk.

Analysts expect the election will confirm that Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party -- founded by the president ahead of his 2017 election win -- has failed to gain a strong foothold at local level.

The party made lackluster showings in March  -- notably in Paris where Macron's candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, came third.

Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is forecast to hold on to the capital in Sunday's vote.

With a death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country went into lockdown on March 17 -- two days after the first election round.

Most restrictions have now been eased, but there is widespread anger at the government over shortages of protective equipment, including face masks, in the early stages of the pandemic.

- Cabinet reshuffle? -

During the outbreak, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe -- an unshowy technocratic -- saw his popularity rise to a level higher than that of Macron, who critics say is a president of the rich, out of touch with ordinary people

Paris is buzzing with speculation that a poor showing by the LREM Sunday could see Macron announce a major cabinet reshuffle, possibly axing Philippe, who campaigned to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.

Holding two executive posts is allowed under French law.

"Although Macron has done a pretty good job of managing COVID-19, he has not been rewarded by his public," said Mujtaba Rahman, Europe managing director for the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.

"A new prime minister, probably further to the left, would allow Macron to claim he is delivering on his promise to ensure the 'second act' of his presidency takes note of failings revealed by his handling of the COVID-19 crisis."

With 22 months to go to the next presidential election, "Macron is also tempted to make the change because of Philippe’s soaring popularity," Rahman said.

Macron's main challenger at a national level is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (RN).

A poll by Harris Interactive Epoka on Friday showed that 44 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Macron but 51 percent were positive on Philippe, a jump of 13 points for the premier in a few months.

"There will not be any significant conquests for LREM," said Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster with the Kantar Center on the Future of Europe.

"This will deprive the ruling party of a territorial anchor that it could have depended on in future elections," he said. 

Despite an abysmal performance in the last presidential elections, France's Socialists are expected to keep key regional centers, including Paris, where three women are vying for the top job.

- No vote in Guiana -

There will also be close attention on the green Europe Ecology – The Greens (EELV) party, which has its eye on the Alpine hub of Grenoble as well as Strasbourg and Lyon.

In Marseille, leftist Michele Rubirola hopes to cause a sensation by taking France's second city from the right after a quarter of a century of control.

For Le Pen's RN, the big prize would be the southeastern city of Perpignan, which could become the stage for the first far-right takeover of a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since Toulon in 1995. 

The only region of France where the vote is not taking place is the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic is still deemed too active to proceed with the vote.