France votes in the second round of regional elections on Sunday after a first round that saw a drubbing for President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) party, disappointment for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) party and record low turnout.
For some observers, the outcome of the June 20 first round raised doubts over whether the 2022 presidential election would come down to a duel between Macron and Le Pen – whose National Rally is the former National Front – in a run-off long seen as the most likely scenario.
The first-round results marked a boost for the traditional right-wing The Republicans as well as the Socialist Party, who have been squeezed after the centrist Macron surged into power in 2017 with his brand-new LREM party.
Analysts warn against too much extrapolation onto a nationwide scale from the results of the regional elections, which choose the heads of France’s 13 mainland regions from Brittany in the northwest to the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region in the southeast.
But there was cross-party concern over the turnout for last week’s polls, which were shunned by 66.72 percent of voters – a record in modern France.
“What we are seeing is the culmination of a disconnection between voters and the political class,” said Jessica Sainty, politics lecturer at Avignon University, while acknowledging the Covid-19 crisis also played a role in the high abstention rate.
The woeful turnout prompted a debate over how to improve participation, with several figures including government spokesman Gabriel Attal suggesting electronic voting could help in future.
The interior ministry reported at midday Sunday that turnout was at 12.66 percent, up slightly from last week’s first round.
Far right hopes for breakthrough
The first-round results put Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) ahead in just one region, PACA, a major disappointment after polls had showed a possible breakthrough in several areas.
One of the most closely watched races on Sunday will be whether RN candidate Thierry Mariani can defeat his right-wing rival Renaud Muselier in the region.
Gaining control of a region for the first time would be a huge boost for Le Pen as she seeks to convince voters that the RN, which she has reformed and rebranded since taking over from her firebrand father Jean-Marie, is a serious party of power.
Muselier could be helped by the withdrawal of left-wing candidates in a repeat of France’s “Republican Front”, a manoeuvre in which parties from across the political spectrum drop out after the first round to support the RN’s opponent in the second, something that has occurred in past presidential elections to block the far right.
“The idea of a victory for Mariani … would show that the RN can almost triumph alone over the coalition of all the others and head the powerful executive of a modern region,” said Jérôme Sainte-Marie, president of the Pollingvox Institute.
The RN also came up short in the Île-de-France region that includes Paris, where its 25-year-old candidate Jordan Bardella failed to trouble right-wing incumbent Valerie Pécresse in the first round.
‘Lacks local presence’
The first-round results made even more unpalatable reading for Macron and his LREM, confirming the party’s failure to put down local and regional roots despite controlling the presidency and lower house of parliament.
Despite sending several ministers to campaign and Macron himself embarking on a nationwide tour – that saw him slapped by an onlooker at one point – in some regions LREM did not muster the required 10 percent to make round two.
“2022: What if it wasn’t them?” asked the headline in the left-wing Libération newspaper over a picture of Macron and Le Pen.
“LREM lacks a local presence, but in 2017 that did not prevent them from winning the presidential and legislative elections,” said Sainty.
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