PARIS: France's Greens celebrated major gains on Sunday (Jun 28) in local elections marked by record-low turnout and the failure of President Emmanuel Macron's ruling party to make any significant impact.
Projections based on early vote counts showed Europe Ecology, the Green party (EELV), poised to take the key cities of Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg and in a very close contest for Lille.
The second round of the local polls took place over three months after the first round held on Mar 15. They had originally been scheduled for Mar 22 but were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye expressed "disappointment" over the poor showing of the centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party which Macron created shortly before his successful 2017 presidential run.
This is the first time it had competed in nationwide local elections and analysts have said the LREM has failed to plant roots at a local level.
"There are places... where our own internal divisions brought us to results that were extremely disappointing," Ndiaye told French television.
Socialist Anne Hidalgo was on course to easily win a second term as mayor of Paris.
The LREM's Agnes Buzyn was projected to come a distant third in the French capital, also behind right-wing candidate Rachida Dati.
Hidalgo, who has vowed to limit the use of cars in the French capital, thanked voters in her victory speech for choosing "a Paris that breathes, a Paris that is more agreeable to live in".
Marine Le Pen's National Rally, meanwhile, claimed victory in the southern city of Perpignan, in what would be the first far-right takeover of a French city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since 1995.
The biggest coup for the Greens would be ousting former minister Martine Aubry as mayor of the northern city of Lille. But her entourage insisted to AFP that she had clung on in a knife-edge vote.
But in the eastern city of Strasbourg EELV candidate Jeanne Barseghian, 39, was on course to beat a LREM-led alliance.
And in Marseille, environmentalist Michele Rubirola was set to end years of right-wing control of the city at the head of a left-wing alliance.
"What has emerged victorious tonight, it seems to me, is the desire for a real environmentalism that is put into action," Yannick Jadot, an MEP and senior EELV figure, told TF1 television.
Some 16.5 million eligible voters cast their ballots in nearly 5,000 cities and towns where the first round of municipal voting had failed to yield a decisive outcome.
But estimates showed that only two in five voters turned up to vote, an abstention rate that Le Pen described as "astonishing" and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said amounted to "a civic strike".
Macron expressed his concern over the high abstention rate, estimated at about 60 percent, and acknowledged that the elections were marked by a "green wave", the presidency said.
With a national death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some voters angry over the government's failure to provide protective material like masks rapidly.
Voters were required to wear face masks and urged to bring their own pens to lower the contamination risk. Many voters and election officials sported germ-blocking plastic visors.
Macron is widely rumoured to be preparing for a cabinet reshuffle after Sunday's results, and the future of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who won his race for mayor in the Normandy port city of Le Havre, appeared unsure.
Though French law allows for the holding of two executive posts, observers expect Macron to use the occasion to axe the premier, whose popularity exceeds his own according to opinion polls.
Firing Philippe 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," said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
With just 22 months to the next presidential election, Macron's main challenger nationwide is Le Pen.
Analysts say disillusion with the LREM and Macron, who critics say is a president of the rich out of touch with ordinary people, may have dissuaded people from going out to vote in already complicated circumstances.
The only region of France not voting Sunday was the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic was deemed too active to open polling stations.