By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - After dynamiting France's mainstream parties, President Emmanuel Macron is turning his mind to re-election and the need to make inroads in the last bastion of the old establishment: 35,000 town halls.
Municipal elections are still eight months away, but Macron is already plotting a course to conquer cities big and small. His ruling party on Wednesday picked former government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux to be its candidate for Paris.
Conquering cities such as Marseille, Lyon or Bordeaux is crucial to building a local power base for his party, La Republique En Marche (LREM), which he created with a handful of aides in 2016 as a vehicle for his presidential campaign.
Back then, he promised a grassroots movement that would revolutionise France's highly centralised political structure. But his failure to connect with ordinary people is one reason he was caught badly off-guard by the anti-government yellow-vest protests that began in October.
"It'll be essential for him to have a good showing," said Claude Dargent, researcher at Sciences-Po university in Paris. "It'll be an opportunity to win local bastions, because that's also how you win a presidential election."
Mayors, whether of small rural communes or large cities, are influential in local politics and, as the deliverers of policing, transport or planning services, are often citizens' main point of contact with the state.
"ARROGANT BUT NEVER DISHONEST"
Griveaux is one of the "Macron boys" - the clique that helped propel the former investment banker to the Elysee Palace - whose reputation as a "sniper" on morning radio shows could exemplify the arrogance that Macron is accused of demonstrating in his first two years in power.
However, with him, Macron can count on a safe pair of hands - a choice perhaps learnt from the nomination as European Parliament candidate of Nathalie Loiseau, a technocrat whose lack of political experience and gaffes hurt the campaign.
"People say I'm arrogant and cutting, but never that I'm dishonest," Griveaux told Le Point magazine earlier this week.
He was selected over Cedric Villani, an eccentric maths genius, recognisable for his silk cravats and spider brooches, with no political experience prior to his election as a LREM lawmaker in 2017.
"My mission now is to go beyond the sole LREM horizon. The future mayor of Paris will have to be one for all Parisians, not the mayor of a tribe," Griveaux said.
With the formerly dominant Socialists and centre-right still in meltdown, polls put LREM ahead in the Paris race.
A BVA survey in June had either Villani or Griveaux winning 25 percent of the vote, four points ahead of Socialist incumbent Anne Hidalgo, whose campaign against cars has fuelled resentment.
"The number of towns the (ruling) party wins won't necessarily be high, but what counts is showing they can take emblematic cities such as Paris or Lyon," said Jean-Daniel Levy of pollster Harris Interactive.
Macron has refrained from publicly supporting potential candidates, but is pulling the strings behind the scenes.
He also has gained momentum by trouncing the centre-right Les Republicains party in European elections, denting its hopes of rebuilding a credible opposition.
Some 72 sitting centre-right mayors and senior local officials have announced they will now back Macron's party, including the mayors of mid-sized cities such as Angers, Tours, Orleans, Amiens and Nancy.
Les Republicains is internally split and struggling to position itself between Macron's centrists and the far-right.
Determined to finish the party off, Macron will next year repeat the strategy he used for the European elections: frame the municipal contest as a duel between "progressives" such as himself and the far-right.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose party traditionally fares poorly in mayoral elections, is aiming to keep the 10 towns it won last time in the north and southeast while adding a few more, including Perpignan on the Spanish border.
However, analysts said the real competition for Macron's LREM would more likely come from a surge in support for environmental protection in cities increasingly choked with pollution.
"They both draw support from educated voters, especially in Paris," Dargent said. "That will be the key challenge for him."
(Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Cawthorne)