On Saturday evening, protesters against the French government’s controversial pensions reforms covered Edouard Philippe’s constituency office in Le Havre in graffiti. “49.3 Philippe has the fever,” one slogan read. “Put him in quarantine,” demanded another. Earlier that day, France’s prime minister had triggered article 49.3 of the constitution in order to force through the retirement changes by decree.
The government’s use of that provision comes as Mr Philippe stakes a claim for renewed political legitimacy by standing as mayor in the Normandy port city. He previously held the mayoralty there between 2010 and 2017.
He is banking on local support in Le Havre, an industrial enclave with a population of about 170,000 that was heavily bombed by the allies in the second world war, at a pivotal moment in his career — and in the five-year term of President Emmanuel Macron.
A victory would deliver a boost to Mr Macron’s administration, which is navigating its most testing period since the gilets jaunes movement first erupted in late 2018. The president’s ruling La République en Marche party is expected to fare badly in this month’s municipal elections.
“The idea behind this is to re-legitimise the prime minister and other members of the government who are standing,” said Nicolas Bouzou, an economist at Asterès, a consultancy. “There’s a desire to show that government ministers can receive the support of the people.”
The danger, however, is that instead of focusing on local issues, voters could use the elections to express their opposition to reforms that have triggered waves of strikes and protests.
Le Havre’s status as a key battleground in the pension dispute will be personally uncomfortable for the prime minister, who comes from a family of dockers and briefly belonged, as a student, to the social-democratic wing of the Socialist party, before leaving and moving to the centre-right.
Pauline Cornier, a 28-year-old teacher and new mother in Le Havre, said: “People say [Mr Philippe] is a good guy. But if he really had any leftwing convictions, maybe he wouldn’t have gone all the way with the reform.”
Serge Olivier, 68, said he would probably cast his ballot for Mr Philippe, but agreed that “people will vote for or against the pension reform, not for the town”.
A Communist bastion for three decades from the 1960s, Le Havre has returned centre-right mayors for 25 years since it first elected Antoine Rufenacht, Mr Philippe’s mentor, who was credited with launching a regeneration drive following years of industrial decline.
Despite a fragmented opposition and his high local profile, Mr Philippe’s homecoming threatens to be less triumphant than 2014, when he won the mayoralty with 52 per cent of votes and no need for a run-off.
As the architect of the contentious pensions project, he is first in the line of fire of public opinion. The role of the prime minister in France’s Fifth Republic has often been to shield the president from criticism.
“He should hold his local stronghold of Le Havre. He has a very solid anchor, as well as a reputation which partly protects him,” said Chloe Morin of the think-tank Fondation Jean-Jaurès. “The real risk would be that he does not win in the first round.”
In his favour, Mr Philippe — who is not actually a member of La République en Marche — does not face a major rival from the centre-right. And if successful, he would hand over the mayoralty to deputy Jean-Baptiste Gastinne, the incumbent who has been in the post for almost a year.
For Mr Gastinne, speaking from his town hall office that looks out on to a tramway built in 2012, the choice for voters is whether to continue with economic redevelopment or abandon course.
He acknowledges there is still much work to be done. “We have an unemployment rate which is higher than the French average. Even if it has dropped a lot, it is still too high. There is deindustrialisation and also an imbalance between job offers [and skills] in Le Havre.”
Critics say the fruits of regeneration have not been spread widely enough, while there are other pressing issues, such as a lack of doctors. However, efforts to form a common leftwing front to defeat Mr Philippe have fallen flat, in part because of disagreement between Communists and the Greens over a coal-fired power plant earmarked for closure next year.
Yet Jean-Paul Lecoq, a Communist MP who heads a list also backed by the leftwing La France Insoumise and Générations, believes the use of article 49.3 may still influence the outcome. “Maybe it will make more citizens get out and vote, because it’s not an approach that pleases people in France,” he said. “It’s a negation of democracy, even if it’s in the constitution.”
“Even before this law, people were saying we need change in Le Havre. They are telling me that this [local administration] is over. It’s been there for 25 years and we need new energy.”
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