Setbacks for Le Pen, Macron parties in French regional vote

France’s far-right led by Marine Le Pen insisted Monday it could recover from a disappointing first round of regional polls marked by a strong result from the traditional right and another feeble performance by President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party.

The vote on Sunday was widely watched as the last national electoral test ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next year, which polls currently suggest will be a close race between Le Pen and Macron. 

The National Rally (RN) of Le Pen was well short of forecast gains, while Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move party received barely over 10 percent of ballots in an election marked by record high abstention.

The vote determines who leads the 13 regions of mainland France and its 96 smaller departments, with the outcome to be decided in next Sunday’s second round run-off.

“Of course we’re asking ourselves questions,” RN vice-president Jordan Bardella told RMC radio on Monday morning. “But it’s a two-round election and it’s not because we had results that were weaker than we expected that the election is a foregone conclusion.

“There’s a second round and voters will have another chance to express themselves.”

Traditional right-wing candidates topped the vote in six out of 13 regions in mainland France, with the Republicans (LR) party the dominant force nationally. The traditional left led by the Socialists finished first in five.

The National Rally emerged in pole position in only one, the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, home to Marseille, Saint-Tropez and Cannes.

“Our voters didn’t turn out,” Le Pen said on Sunday night. “I call on them to respond urgently.”

– Alliances –

It is hard to predict the ultimate winners of the polls because of the two-round electoral system and the impact of tactical voting, which usually sees mainstream parties form alliances to keep the far-right out of power. 

In the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, left-wing candidate Jean-Laurent Felizia, who finished third on Sunday, announced he would withdraw in favour of the current boss of the region, right-winger Renaud Muselier, who finished second.

The move was intended to block the way for RN-backed Thierry Mariani, who finished top and is the party’s best chance of winning a region for the first time.

Meanwhile, the leader of Macron’s LREM, Stanislas Guerini, did not try to hide his disappointment that the party had failed to convert four years in power at the national level into grassroots support. 

“It is a reminder that we, as the presidential majority, have work to do to build up a local presence, which is a long and laborious task that doesn’t happen in one election,” he told France Inter radio.

– Record abstention –

The abstention rate of 66.1-68.6 percent — the highest for an election since at least 1958 — has shocked observers and led to speculation about the causes.

It also makes it extremely hazardous to draw any conclusions about the national political picture, particularly about the presidential race next year, analysts warn.

“It would be mistake to think that because the National Rally’s score is lower than expected it will automatically have an effect on Marine Le Pen’s presidential campaign in 2022,” Antoine Bristielle of the Jean-Jaures Foundation, a think-tank, told AFP.

“The dynamics are completely different.”

The lack of public campaigning due to Covid-19 restrictions appears to have played a part in the high abstention rate, as did the warm summery weather, as people appeared to prioritise time outside with friends and family after months of lockdown.

“These are elections marked by the emergence from the pandemic and the indifference of French people towards the specific stakes of this election, which they found hard to identify,” Brice Teinturier, head of the Ipsos polling group in France, told France Inter radio. 

The trend of rising abstention has been clear for years, however, including in the last parliamentary and presidential elections in 2017.

Several French political personalities looked set to emerge strengthened from Sunday’s vote, however, including centre-right presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand, head of the Upper France region.

Exit polls had him winning 39-47 percent of the vote in the first round, putting him on course for victory.

“We’ve unlocked the jaws of the National Front in order to smash them here,” Bertrand said, referring to Le Pen’s party by its previous name.


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