By Paul Chartrand
HAVANA TIMES – Most people in the United States are thinking of November and our upcoming national and statewide elections. Only four months and so much at stake!
My state’s primary and local elections are today, after postponement from June 9. I voted absentee and will likely do so in November, with many other citizens. Waiting in line at the polls, handling ballots and pens, shaking hands with candidates, chatting with friends and signing petitions seems less appealing in the pandemic era. Maine’s town meetings will also look very different this year.
Along with other recent life changes, the move to more absentee and mail in voting may permanently change elections in Maine and around the world. I have been in France for their recent mayoral elections, which take place every six years on two consecutive Sundays in March.
The second Sunday is a runoff between the two high vote getters from the first vote, unless someone gets over 50% on the first ballot. If so, he or she is Mayor without a runoff. There is no write in or mail in voting here. If you cannot personally vote, you may name a proxy to vote for you at the polls. This year Covid-19 threw a huge curve ball into the March schedule of two consecutive Sundays.
Mayors are important civic figures here in France; those from large cities have a chance to implement their party’s programs and demonstrate their effectiveness; they often move on to seek national office.
Small town mayors may stay in office for decades and may serve as more of a ceremonial figure, performing all marriages and speaking at regional assemblies for their constituents, as well as managing the day to day activities of their town.
Campaigns for large city mayor posts are intensely fought and closely followed. They often show where political winds are blowing; mayoral votes fall near the halfway point between presidential elections held every five years.
Pres. Macron began confinement measures on March 13; full confinement was ordered for March 17. Most everyone thought the March 15 elections would be postponed, since we were told to avoid gatherings and masks were unavailable that early in the French Covid experience. However, Macron finally decided France needed to exercise its democratic responsibility that Sunday.
The first round elections were held amidst social distancing, liberal amounts of sanitizer and lots of criticism from left and right. Only about 55% of voters showed up, which was almost a record low for this country. The President immediately and indefinitely postponed the March 22 second vote. Mayors elected with over 50% of the vote soon took office, while all incumbents stayed in office in cities where a second round was needed.
Thus, began either the longest political campaign since WWII or the campaign that never happened. Everyone had much more to worry about and even the limited French style of campaigning was impossible. No one even knew when the second round vote would take place until mid-May, when “Either before July 1 or in Jan, 2021” was announced. Late in May, as hospitalizations and case numbers dropped, a June 28 date was confirmed.
Only about 42% of French voters came out to vote that Sunday. Some large cities had even lower turnouts of between 32-38%. The numbers were shocking for a country that prides itself on democracy and civic participation. Covid-19 fears certainly shocked many voters into abstention, especially in cities where one candidate was highly favored to win. But many mayoral seats were contested and those who voted brought some interesting results.
In several large cities, despite low turnouts, the Socialist candidate won or maintained an existing seat. In a surprising number of other cities, Green Ecology candidates won first time elections. In most cases the two parties worked together to a degree not seen previously. Many believe the long delay between the first and second ballot, as we re-examined our lives through a more worldwide lense also contributed to this Green gain.
The far-right Republican Front kept their existing seats but did not win any new or upset victories. Center right Republicans have not done well since 2017 when they lost many supporters to Macron’s new party; they did not gain any new ground this year.
The biggest losers nationwide were two relatively new parties: Macron’s “Republic on the March” and the far left “France Unbowed” led by Jean-Luc Melanchon. Both formed during the 2017 Presidential vote, out of alienated center left and center right party members.
This is a serious blow to Macron’s new party and shows he will need to work hard in order to win re-election in 2022. But Socialist and Ecology groups need to unify further and find a strong candidate to take on an incumbent President in two years.
Macron will start with the home field advantage. He launched a new media campaign today in a long interview after the traditional July 14 celebration was held without public attendance for television viewers only. Macron highlighted changes he hopes to make in his remaining 600 days, with a focus on repairing economic damage from Covid 19 and developing an “ecology of industry” rather than an “ecology of less.”
Losing candidates blamed the low turnout in French mayoral elections on overall disaffection with major parties and institutions, fitting their dialogue about the need to fix a broken system too long dependent on two major parties.
France’s handling of the pandemic left much to be desired, which certainly hurt Macron’s new third party. So the Ecologists, with the least resources of any party and no seats in Parliament, captured more of the political winds than expected and will build towards future elections. How much did this year’s pandemic concerns and a long delay for a second vote help this movement?
So I wonder, will months of reflection on our lives, our neighbors, our cities and towns, inspire US voters to make unexpected choices for the future in our upcoming votes?