The French environmentalist party Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV) was the biggest winner in the second round of municipal elections in France on Sunday, seizing town halls in Besançon, Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg in an unprecedented "green wave".
EELV spokeswoman Eva Sas said the victories showed "a combination of the need for ecology and a new generation of ecologists who were ready to govern".
The second round of the elections had to be postponed for three months because of the Covid-19 epidemic. Voters were required to wear surgical masks and clean their hands with sanitiser gel.
Record high abstention of 59 per cent was attributed to fear of catching Covid-19, cited by 43 per cent of abstentionist voters in an Ipsos/Sopra Steria poll.
EELV was allied in many towns with the Socialist Party, but the balance of power has shifted in favour of the environmentalists. Olivier Faure, the Socialist first secretary, hailed what he called "a huge élan rising across France, which has made it possible for Socialists and Ecologists to win great victories".
The Socialists kept the capital, Paris, with support from EELV. The incumbent mayor Anne Hidalgo won 49.3 per cent of the vote, 17 points ahead of Rachida Dati, the candidate for the conservative party Les Républicains (LR).
Agnès Buzyn, the candidate in Paris for president Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche, won only 13.7 per cent of the vote. Mr Macron had taken 90 per cent of the vote in the capital in the 2017 presidential election.
The president's party was the greatest loser of the election. Calling LREM's defeat "colossal", Mr Faure challenged government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye on France 2 television, saying "Wherever you need to be on the ground, you fail."
Though she denies having presidential ambitions, Ms Hidalgo is increasingly seen as a possible challenger to Mr Macron in the 2022 presidential elections. The Socialist candidate Olivia Fortin won Marseille, long a stronghold of LR.
Martine Aubry, the former Socialist Party leader who has been mayor of Lille since 2001, won an extremely close race in which she was challenged by her former deputy, Stéphane Baly, of EELV.
In one of the most closely watched races, prime minister Edouard Philippe defeated a Communist challenger for the mayor's office in Le Havre with a resounding 58.83 per cent.
Had Mr Philippe lost, it was clear he would be sacked by Mr Macron. Now the biggest question in French politics is whether Mr Macron will keep Mr Philippe in office in an upcoming cabinet reshuffle.
After putting Mr Philippe on the front line in crises over pension reform and coronavirus, Mr Macron appears eager to reassert his authority. In a televised address on June 14th, the president made it clear that he, not Mr Philippe, is in charge of economic and European policy.
Sacking the popular prime minister could be a dangerous move. Opinion polls show Mr Philippe “won his stripes as a statesman” during the epidemic, said Frédéric Dabi of the Ifop polling institute.
Despite the loss of Marseille, Les Républicains had a good election. "We had one defeat after another for three years," said LR leader Christian Jacob. "This evening is a great victory. More than half of towns with more than 9,000 inhabitants are held by LR."
The far-right Rassemblement National (RN) won Perpignan, population 120,000. Though Louis Aliot, the former companion of RN leader Marine Le Pen, did not use the party label in his campaign, "I made no secret of my belonging," he said. "Some people don't care about labels. The so-called 'republican front' [against the far-right] has fallen. That's an excellent message for the future."