(CN) — Voters heavily backed pro-environmental candidates in local French elections Sunday, while setting the stage on Poland’s presidential front for a consequential runoff between a nationalist conservative and a liberal.
Both elections had been rescheduled as each country worked to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. Turnout among the French was historically low with only 41% of voters casting ballots in what was the final round of municipal elections. The low turnout was blamed on the election taking place during the summer and on voters’ fears of infection. In Poland, however, turnout was very high at about 63% — evidence of the stakes Poles see in the election.
On July 12, Poland’s incumbent President Andzrej Duda, a nationalist who advocates anti-gay views, will face a runoff with Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzakowski. The race will be a major test for Duda, whose deeply conservative government has pursued policies that many in the European Union view as authoritarian and anti-democratic.
Several large cities of France meanwhile saw Green party candidates elected mayor. Previously, the only large municipality run by a Green was Grenoble. The success of Green candidates in Strasbourg, Lyon and Annecy as well as Bordeaux and Marseille — two cities long run by conservatives — mirrors recent electoral successes by Greens in Belgium, Germany and Austria. European voters are increasingly calling for more action on climate change.
Demands for better custodianship of the environment also helped propel Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo to a second term in Paris.
In a three-woman race that saw her aligned with the Greens against a Republican candidate and a Macron party candidate, Hidalgo won about 48% of the vote.
“You have chosen hope, teamwork, a Paris that can breathe, that is better to live in, shows more solidarity and that leaves nobody to fall by the wayside,” Hidalgo said in a victory speech.
The mayor made reducing vehicle traffic a cornerstone of her policies and re-election gives her a mandate to carry out her plan of transforming the French capital into a city that gives primacy to bicycles.
Hidalgo wants every Paris street and bridge to include cycle lanes. In addition to removing space for cars in favor of bicycles and pedestrians under Plan Vélo, Hidalgo has called to remove 72% of the city’s on-street parking spaces.
French parties on the right — the mainstream conservatives Les Républicains and the far-right National Rally — performed moderately well too. The Republicans held onto several cities and towns they ran, tempering the loss of strongholds Marseille and Bordeaux. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally won Perpignan, the biggest city it has conquered since the 1990s.
The elections were a new electoral disappointment for French President Emmanuel Macron and his liberal centrist party, the Republic on the Move, and may prompt Macron to switch gears and overhaul his presidency with little more than two years left in his term.
Macron may seek to revive his presidency by adopting more environmental and social issues, French media said. Macron has been pushing a pro-business agenda designed to make France more competitive, but those policies have run into deep resistance.
Macron created his upstart party during his seismic presidential campaign that brought him into the Elysee in 2017, signaling the cataclysmic collapse of France’s traditional parties on the left and right, the Socialists and Republicans. French voters also gave the Republic on the Move a majority in the National Assembly, allowing Macron to push ahead with his ambitious reform agenda. But Macron ran into opposition and his approval ratings have plummeted. Recently, defections inside the Republic on the Move saw it lose its majority in the National Assembly.
“I hope tomorrow Emmanuel Macron will hear tonight’s message,” said Yannick Jadot, an influential Green party leader in the European Parliament, after the elections.
Sunday’s election in Poland sets up a divisive runoff with implications for the rest of Europe, though it seems unlikely that Duda will fail to win re-election. The conservative president picked up about 44% of the vote, well ahead of Trzaskowski’s 30%.
Duda is backed by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, and he goes along with its policies grounded in welfare spending and social conservatism, including anti-gay rhetoric.
During the campaign Duda called “LGBT ideology” more harmful than communism. U.S. President Donald Trump has aligned himself with Poland’s right-wing government and even hosted Duda four days before the election. Trump has talked about shifting more troops to Poland as well as building a new military base in Poland and calling it “Fort Trump.”
Duda’s re-election once seemed assured but pandemic-linked economic troubles for the country has hurt the president’s popularity. Duda and the Law and Justice party are pushing a large infrastructure program to get the economy going again and argue that not choosing Duda will threaten Polish politics with political deadlock.
Trzaskowski, an academic by background with the Civic Platform opposition party, is seen as a liberal centrist favored by the urban elite who could block the Law and Justice party from pushing ahead with its anti-EU and nationalist conservative rhetoric. He joined the race after the election got postponed in May, and he has positioned himself as a champion of an open and liberal society.
The Law and Justice party is accused by its critics of tightening an authoritarian grip on the country’s judicial system while also stifling dissenting voices and fomenting far-right nationalism.
Because of these moves, the European Commission took the unprecedented step of triggering sanctions proceedings against Poland in 2017.
Poland became an EU member in 2004. EU leaders have characterized their legal and political battle with the nationalists in Poland as a fight over the “heart and soul of Europe.”
Yascha Mounk, a politics professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies the rise of far-right populism, said “democracy is on the line” in Poland.
“If Andrzej Duda, a staunch supporter of the Law and Justice government, is reelected, Warsaw will likely soon look like Budapest,” Mounk said on Twitter, referring to the authoritarian regime of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
But he added that he was not optimistic that Trzaskowski could pick up enough of the votes that went to other candidates in the first round and beat Duda in the second round. “It’s a big gap to close.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.