New Municipalism(s) – à la française
***Version française ci-dessous***
The 2020 French municipal elections saw an unprecedented proliferation of “citizens’ lists” composed of non-party affiliated “newcomers”. Less than two years after the Yellow Vests movement burst onto the political scene, this phenomenon should be understood as the result of a multifaceted crisis of local democracy. French municipalism may offer a way out of the crisis, but it faces many constraints.
The French municipal elections of March and June 2020 were marked by the health crisis. In the midst of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, voter turnout hit a record low. This phenomenon could be interpreted as a new manifestation of disinterest in politics. However, the elections also saw a rebirth of political mobilisation. They were characterised by the emergence of “citizens’ lists” made up of newcomers not affiliated to any party organisations. The latest elections therefore clearly provide more evidence of a mistrust in politics, and more precisely in the “governing” parties – a mistrust which, though not a complete novelty, has grown considerably over the past decade.
Although it is difficult to objectively assess the current extent of municipalism in France (the lists claiming to be “participatory”, “of citizens” or “municipalist” are as numerous as they are heterogeneous), its emergence is undoubtedly upending the local political game board traditionally dominated by the “governing” parties. For the past forty years, the latter have locked down the local political agenda, structuring it around the watchwords of competitiveness and attractiveness, as exemplified by major urban planning projects and cultural policies aimed at the middle and upper classes. Of course, the situations vary significantly depending on the type of city, and growing metropolises face different problems from those experienced in declining medium-sized cities. However, on the whole, the mantra of development is shared by city councillors on both the right and the left, for whom the main challenge is to attract companies, investors and new populations to their city.
Brought to light by the 2020 elections, it is these two crises – that of local political agendas and the more general crisis of confidence in politics – which served as the main springboard for the “new” municipalist movements. In many cities, we have seen the (re)emergence of critical positions towards “attractiveness policies” as well as of concrete initiatives aimed at redressing the balance of power between the market players and public interests. What are the factors driving this emerging challenge? Which social groups and actors are behind it? How is this reflected in the competing electoral options and municipal government programmes? Do these developments represent a shift from the neoliberal paradigm to a neo-municipalist perspective?
A “metro-sceptical” mood
Municipalism is first and foremost the result of a legitimacy crisis of local political agendas, which are still predominantly focused on the issues of growth, urban development and attractiveness, thus embodying what in France are increasingly referred to as “metropolisation* policies”. For some years now, a discourse critical of metropolisation has been emerging among intellectual and activist circles. This is a rather new development, as urban struggles in France do not have the same scope or longevity as in other countries such as Germany. Moreover, the very term “metropolis” has long remained confined to the province of experts and geographers.
The situation changed in mid-2010 when two newly enacted laws modified the inter-municipal cooperation structures of the largest cities, creating the political category of “metropolis”. This legislative and semantic innovation contributed to solidifying latent public discontent over social and spatial-planning developments that were considered to be pernicious (soaring property prices in urban centres, gentrification, the eviction of precarious populations, the alleged abandonment of rural areas by the State, etc.) as well as over the proliferation of large-scale development projects (airports, motorways, sports stadiums, leisure parks, shopping centres, etc.) deemed unnecessary and harmful to the environment. National- and local-level elected officials and bodies were criticised for pushing an agenda to concentrate people and functions in a handful of large cities.
The rejection of the metropolisation agenda was taken up by a number of lists in the latest municipal elections. In Socialist-governed Nantes, the Nantes en Commun list was explicitly inspired by both municipalism and the critique of metropolisation. Since 1989, its councillors had used Nantes as a laboratory for cultural and environmental policies designed both to satisfy their electoral base – made up of the enlightened petty bourgeoisie – and to position the city competitively in territorial terms. The Nantes en Commun list was the result of an effort by activists to unify the struggles underway on the outskirts of the metropolis – particularly at the Notre-Dame des Landes ZAD – with the campaigns waged in certain neighbourhoods of the city that are undergoing major changes. Nantes en Commun is thus the electoral product of a movement more broadly called Métropole en luttes (Metropolis in Struggle), which challenges both the “metropolitan paradigm” and the organisation of the metropolitan powers.
In Strasbourg, the Strasbourg Écologiste et Citoyenne list, led by the Greens but including non-party affiliated citizens, was also built to break away from the entrepreneurial agenda of the former city council. But it was above all the controversy surrounding a bypass project that finally undermined the local Socialist-Green alliance, which had been running the city for over ten years. In France, the contestation of the metropolisation agendas and policies is just as decisive a factor as austerity in explaining the recent proliferation of municipalist lists.
Discontent over inadequate representation
Alongside the rejection of the “metropolisation agenda”, another factor that fuelled the emergence of municipalist approaches was the legitimacy crisis suffered by political institutions in general and political parties in particular. The CEVIPOF’s February 2021 “Political Trust Barometer” indicates that only 16% of French people say they have “confidence in political parties”, compared with 39% of Germans and 32% of British people. The widely documented signs of this crisis include the unpopularity of political personalities, abstentionism, the rise of populism and self-styled “anti-system” parties (such as La République En Marche, the party founded by Emmanuel Macron), and the blurring of – or the attempts to “overcome” – the right-left divide. For a long time, local elected officials were spared this generalised mistrust, especially in small towns where party affiliations are often non-existent or hidden from view. However, elected officials in large cities find it more difficult to escape this fall from favour – in the first place, because they do not enjoy the same degree of proximity to voters as their counterparts in small towns, and secondly, because their party affiliation is often more explicit: they are dependent on parties and their resources to run election campaigns, and they have to assert their affiliation if they want to become national political figures.
One party in particular has been in turmoil for several years: the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste – PS). And in fact, it is often in opposition to the PS that the municipalist movement has gathered strength. This is because the PS has several characteristics that make it an ideal target. Although the party was devastated at the national level (the number of Socialist deputies collapsed from 295 in 2012 to 31 in 2017), it still runs a large number of cities. The municipalist push must therefore be understood as the product of the exhaustion of social-democratic urban government. The latter’s agenda still appeals to one part of the progressive middle classes, but increasingly struggles to bring together other layers of the urban population. Some groups – including those with a high level of cultural capital but, conversely, low economic capital – are mobilising to offer a new electoral platform. As for the working classes, they gravitate towards the extreme right (although to a much lesser extent than in rural areas) and especially towards abstentionism.
While this disaffection with politics is a long-standing and almost universal trend in Europe, it has taken an unprecedented form in France since the end of 2018, i.e., 15 months before the municipal elections. The Yellow Vests movement is radically changing the ways in which people protest and social struggles are waged. Originally centred on the protest against the introduction of a new fuel tax, the movement quickly gained considerable momentum, with its set of “demands” broadening to include proposals for democratic innovations aimed at reforming, or even breaking with, the exercise of representative power at the national and local levels. Issues pertaining to direct communal democracy have thus been reintroduced into public debate, notably through the proposal to institute a Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (Référendum d’initiative citoyenne) and through the self-organisation of the Yellow Vests groups. Although rejected on a national scale, these issues had a significant effect on the structuring of neo-municipalist initiatives in the spring of 2020. Furthermore, though this is a controversial idea, some people see the Yellow Vests primarily as a movement of social groups that have been economically disadvantaged and increasingly marginalised by the metropolisation process.
“Municipalism” stymied by party politics
The 2020 municipal elections therefore appear to have marked a turning point. The victory of the Green lists – including non-partisan candidates – in Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Besançon, Tours, Annecy and Poitier, fell like a bombshell on the national political landscape. More generally, the – albeit often mixed – results achieved by the “municipalist” lists allowed newly elected officials to enter the municipal councils of many towns, both large and small. And yet, these developments do not seem to be producing any radical changes for the time being, in that the local governance practices remain constrained by the routines and frameworks of the existing political and institutional system.
It has to be said that the French municipalist lists came up against strong resistance from the traditional partisan forces at the local level. Weakened at the national level by the emergence of La République En Marche! (LREM), the traditional parties – especially those on the centre-right and centre-left – could have been swept away by the municipalist wave, one of whose components was its willingness to open up to non-party-affiliated citizens and to organisations supposedly representing “civil society”. However, this was not the case. Taking advantage of LREM’s weak local implantation, the traditional parties actually managed to maintain their positions during the 2020 elections. Initially overwhelmed by the citizens’ lists, they quickly managed to neutralise them by integrating some of them in their own formations through alliances. In many respects, the firm implantation and the patronage networks inherited from the past still make a difference. On the left, the local political game is still largely dominated by the PS, Europe-Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), the French Communist Party (PCF) and La France Insoumise (LFI).
In some cities, such as Strasbourg (Ecologiste et Citoyenne) and Marseille (Le Printemps Marseillais), the traditional parties control the lists open to civil society. Moreover, these lists are still partly composed of “professional” politicians who occupy top positions in them or even head them. The electoral system in force for municipal elections in France – a two-round list system with proportional representation – gives the established parties a decisive advantage, thus automatically restricting the chances of a new movement to gain electoral strength. In Chambéry, for example, some of the activists of Chambé Citoyenne – a municipalist-inspired list that came third – voted between the two rounds in favour of merging with the Socialist list, even though the latter was only a handful of votes ahead of Chambé Citoyenne.
But the weight of the old parties was also felt internally within the municipalist movement. Several self-proclaimed citizens’ lists gradually started benefiting from party support, thus giving rise to suggestions that their “civic” identity was being diluted. For example, the Poitiers collectif list, which was born outside the parties, received support from EELV, Génération.s, Nouvelle Donne and later the Communist Party. The list was headed by a Green regional councillor, who was finally elected mayor. Similarly, at the initiative of its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, LFI favoured a strategy of support for citizens’ lists in the municipal elections. But the arrival of seasoned political activists within inexperienced collectives had a definite impact on their internal strategies. For example, in Montpellier, some activists of the municipalist movement left the list after it obtained the support of LFI (which had nevertheless made the movement jump ahead in the pre-election polls). They denounced the takeover of the movement’s official communications by an association close to LFI and the cynicism of a campaign in which the party label was brandished in working-class districts, but “hidden” in well-off neighbourhoods. In Marseille, the municipalist-inspired initiative of the “Democratic Pact” was doubly influenced by the parties (which to some extent explains its absence from the starting line in the elections) – from the outside, when its members were consumed by endless and ultimately fruitless negotiations with party representatives (PS, PCF) of the competing left-wing coalition list (Le Printemps Marseillais); as well as from the inside, since the involvement of LFI activists repelled those members who did not want to see the movement transformed into an electioneering tool.
The price of internal democracy
In many French cities, movements claiming to be municipalist have made extensive use of various tools intended to revitalise local democracy. In retrospect, it can be said that these tools proved to be double-edged. Given that the initially identified problem was a representation crisis, the response often took the form of a desire to maximise participation and combat abstentionism. The solution was therefore to invest in spaces (citizens’ cafés, street meetings), methods (drawing lots, elections without candidates, sovereign general assemblies), and horizontal collective decision-making mechanisms that were supposed to ensure that every voice was heard. This choice is of course explained by the age of the participants, who were often quite young, but also by the presence in these movements of people with organisational skills (in areas such as project management, communication, engineering, human resources, etc.).
In Montpellier, for example, in order to avoid mistrust during the candidate selection process, the movement devised mechanisms to promote transparency – e.g., elections without a “head-of-list” candidate, drawing up of the preferred list (including candidates proposed by other members of the movement), etc. Furthermore, the creation of the list was entrusted to a committee of academics and association delegates, who ensured that the list was representative of the population of Montpellier (by age, gender, and profession). In Strasbourg, a similar mechanism was devised to make the list representative of the city’s district structure. Again, in Chambéry and Toulouse, the municipal list was selected by three distinct methods: one third by drawing lots and another third by voting (candidates designated by members of the mobilised collective), the last third being reserved for voluntary candidates. Furthermore, numerous devices were contrived to prolong the involvement of participants, including mainly the use (or reallocation) of communication resources such as internet forums originally designed for video game players, which offer flexible operation and facilitate the reorganisation of the division of labour.
These innovations, which have been described as “platform municipalism”, clearly represent a break with the routine of French local democracy. By creating trust through transparency, they encourage the involvement of groups that have been progressively excluded from local governance. This applies in particular to young people and more generally to social groups that are poorly represented in local democracy. In some cases, these arrangements have also helped to attract cooperation from trade unions. While it still remains to be seen how long the involvement of these groups will last beyond the campaign period, it must be noted that it has generally proved insufficient to reach working-class neighbourhoods, except in cases where the municipal lists originated from an already long-standing movement that was well established in the local associational network. Furthermore, investment in mechanisms aimed at encouraging participation and reviving democracy has often been to the detriment of building a common ideological basis capable of nurturing an effective platform and a more comprehensive definition of the content of urban policies.
The patronage trap
The emphasis placed on the emergence of a “neoliberal city” sometimes obscures the importance of the “patronage dimension” of local politics. The unequal distribution of public goods is present everywhere, but it is more visible in southern cities such as Marseille, Nice, Montpellier and Perpignan. In Montpellier, for example, the Socialist policies implemented uninterruptedly since the “pink wave” of 1977 are based on a spatial differentiation: the east of the city, including the large “new-build gentrification projects” (Port Marianne, etc.), is reserved for the beneficiaries of entrepreneurial policy (private and public sector executives), while the west and its working-class districts are run by a “political machinery” that doles out the remaining public goods (low-skilled public jobs, crèche places, spaces on municipal markets, etc.). Over the decades, as the resources to be distributed have dwindled and the sociological composition of the city has changed, this regime has left out a growing part of the population.
In many cities, the rejection of the patronage system, the denunciation of cronyism or nepotism, together with the desire to put the working classes and their districts back at the core of the local government’s concerns, are central to the discourse underlying the municipalist initiatives. This is the case in Marseille, where the Democratic Pact upholds the principle of so-called “permanent democracy”. Largely born out of the social struggles led by the Syndicat des quartiers populaires de Marseille in the northern districts, the Democratic Pact has nevertheless only managed to present a list in a limited area, namely the 13th and 14th working-class, northern arrondissements, which for a long time were subjected to a patronage system controlled by the local Socialist Party but which fell into in the hands of the far right in 2014. Clearly, the municipalist list supported by the Democratic Pact was hampered (at least to some considerable extent) by the traditional patronage networks, and this explains why it only obtained 6% of the votes in the first round.
The same thing happened in Chambéry, where the Chambé Citoyenne list struggled to compete with the networks of the Socialist Party, even though the latter had been weakened by six years of opposition in the social housing district of Chambéry-le-Haut; or again in Melun, in the Paris suburbs, where the list of the Bien vivre à Melun collective saw its progress slowed down by the local right wing’s patronage networks, despite its extensive connections with local associations, its conspicuous participation in mobilisations (against the privatisation of public services, for the right to housing), and a ten-year track record of grassroots activity in support of direct democracy and environmental justice. In cities and neighbourhoods constrained by such mechanisms, grassroots actions promoted by enthusiastic collectives do not necessarily translate into votes. It is this material system that often stands in the way of the (often inexperienced) activists of the municipalist movement. The realisation of these difficulties, which increases as election day approaches, leads to a strong disenchantment among many activists with regard to “political combos”. This highlights the fact that, when they are not rooted in the associational network and do not stem from the social movements of the last decade, citizens’ lists have little appeal beyond certain sections of the educated middle class.
The spectacular emergence of the municipalist lists certainly marked the 2020 elections. This development reflects the loss of momentum, particularly in the large metropolitan cities, of the inter-party consensus on “attractiveness policies”, but it also points to a growing rejection of austerity policies in the medium-sized cities. The citizens’ lists bring together heterogeneous sections of the urban population, which however have in common the fact that they have been neglected by the neoliberal urban policies and the wealth redistribution practices implemented under the established patronage system. These alliances are in some ways reminiscent of the “pink wave” of 1977, which brought the Socialist Party to power in many cities on the basis of an alliance between a section of the increasingly underprivileged working class and the rising educated middle class. But in the meantime, the context has changed. Territorial differentiation accounts for the fact that the issues at stake are not quite the same in an overheating metropolis, a suburban district located on the third ring of a city, or a declining town in the diagonale du vide or “diagonal of emptiness” hit by the closure of public services.
On the whole, the municipalist lists were confronted with considerable resistance from the established political parties. These were able to forge alliances that were sometimes unnatural, negotiate changes in the platforms or bargain for positions on the lists in exchange for their support, which was always perceived as essential. The municipalist lists proved to be susceptible to these pressures to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their degree of implantation in the local associational fabric and their connection to urban social movements. Once elected, the municipalist lists came up against other obstacles, in particular the inter-municipal authorities, which have now become inescapable obstacles because of the competences they hold in the areas of planning, housing, transport and the fight against climate change. In these areas, whose governance is ensured by inter-party coalitions that favour closed-door arrangements to the detriment of the development of an inclusive metropolitan policy project, the few victorious municipalist lists have had to form alliances with other political forces on the left and centre in the hope of being able to implement their own platform.
For the time being, the election of these new lists seems to bring into sharper relief the gap between two distinct political spaces: the politicised space of the municipality, in which the communal project of social transformation can be implemented, albeit in an incomplete manner; and the depoliticised space of the metropolis, where pragmatic and entrepreneurial governance methods still hold sway. However, as apparent since the 2020 elections, the elected representatives from the municipalist lists, even if they constitute a very tiny minority, are often characterised by a particularly high degree of commitment. Their interventions during local council meetings are all the more notable as they benefit from the preparatory work of a collective movement. Therefore, even now, almost a year after the elections, the reset of the democratic game is an ongoing process. This is why, even though the promises born of the emergence of this movement have not yet all been kept, there is no doubt that this unprecedented political force could eventually play a growing role in French cities.
About the authors
Vincent Béal is a sociologist and political scientist at the University of Strasbourg (UMR 7363 SAGE). He works on cities, urban policies and governance. In recent years, his research has focused on the analysis of responses to the problems of urban decline.
Nicolas Maisetti is a post-doctoral student in political science at the Gustave-Eiffel University (UMR 8134 LATTS). He works on urban austerity policies in the framework of the ANR INVEST research project.
Gilles Pinson is a professor of political science at Sciences Po Bordeaux (UMR 5116 CED). His work focuses on governance and urban policies. He has recently published “La ville néolibérale” (PUF, 2020) and “Pouvoirs Urbains” (in co-authorship with Christian Lefèvre – Éditions Armand Colin, 2020).
Max Rousseau is a political scientist and geographer at CIRAD (UMR 5281 ART-Dev). His work focuses on the governance and redevelopment strategies of peripheral territories in the northern and southern regions.
 The association Action Commune!, which monitored and assisted several lists during the municipal campaign, counted more than 400 in March 2020, though this count is not exhaustive.
* Translator’s note: The term “metropolisation” refers to the rapid growth of metropolitan cities and the attendant concentration of political and decision-making functions, as well as economic, social and cultural activities, within the metropolitan regions.
 Two books – wavering on the borderline between the worlds of science and activism – have met with a strong media response: the essayist Christophe Guilluy’s “La France périphérique” (2014) and the geographer Guillaume Faburel’s “Les métropoles barbares” (2020). The debates on the contestation of the metropolis will be the subject of a special issue of the online journal Métropoles, planned for late 2021. See https://journals.openedition.org/metropoles/
 The ZAD or “Zones à Défendre” (zones to be protected), which have multiplied over the past decade, bring together, on a regular basis, activists opposed to major development projects. The one at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, on the site of a planned airport, was one of the most publicised until its suppression by the government in 2018.
 https://www.sciencespo.fr/cevipof/fr/content/le-barometre-de-la-confiance-politique.html Translator’s note: See also CEVIPOF’s English website “under construction” at https://www.sciencespo.fr/cevipof/en.html.
 These two districts are the political stronghold of the Socialist deputy Sylvie Andrieux, who in 2013 was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment – including a one-year unsuspended term – for misappropriation of public funds. The court revealed the unlawful financing of the political machine that backed her up: €750,000 were paid to fictitious associations used mainly to subsidise electoral agents who were at her service.
- Les promesses à tenir du municipalisme français Vincent Béal, Nicolas Maisetti, Gilles Pinson & Max Rousseau