September 28, 2021

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Five key takeaways from France’s regional elections | France

France’s regional elections produced a humiliating defeat for Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN), stinging failure for Emmanuel Macron and thumping wins for incumbents from the country’s traditional centre-right and centre-left parties.

A record low turnout of less than 35% makes it hard, however, to draw clear lessons for next year’s presidential elections, in which Macron and Le Pen remain clear frontrunners – although the race has certainly got a lot more interesting.

Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s poll:

It was a very bad night for Le Pen …

In the run-up to the elections to mainland France’s 13 regional governments, the leader of the far-right RN party was confident of capturing three or even five regions, with pre-vote polls giving her party a first-round lead in six.

In the end, she failed to win one. The RN’s highest hopes were for the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region that includes Marseille and Nice, but its candidate, Thierry Mariani, managed only 43%, against 57% for the centre-right’s Renaud Muselier.

The party’s usually reliable voters failed to turn out; candidates, including Mariani, recruited from the mainstream right in an attempt to broaden its appeal performed dismally; and in many areas the RN fared markedly worse than last time.

The elections were the party’s final chance to show it was fit for power prior to the presidential poll and a win would have given Le Pen – who faced questions over her electability after her 2017 defeat to Macron – a big boost in the campaign for 2022.

As things stand, she could face renewed doubts from within her party over what some feel has proved a counterproductive strategy of “detoxification”, and possibly a run from a far-right rival such as the TV commentator Éric Zemmour.

… and a seriously embarrassing one for Macron, too

The centrist French president won a sensational victory in the race for the Élysée five years ago, blowing up the country’s political landscape in the process at the head of a political startup that he claimed was “neither right nor left”.

But transforming an electoral campaign into a functioning political party has proved hard. La République en Marche (LREM) finished second in the 2019 European election but lost heavily in local polls last year and failed to win a single region on Sunday.

Having failed to establish any kind of strong local or regional base, the party scored barely 7% of the vote, despite several ministers standing for election and Macron undertaking a nationwide tour – a disastrous score for a ruling party.

LREM’s dire performance raises questions not so much about Macron’s likely score next year (the president’s personal approval ratings have been rising, hitting 50% – a very high score in France – in one poll on Sunday, and he remains the favourite for the presidency) but whether his party can win another parliamentary majority.

The big winners: the mainstream centre-right

The centre-right Les Républicains (LR) and, to a lesser extent, the Socialist party (PS), both crushed by Macron and his LREM in 2017, bounced back – to an extent that left many wondering if the redrawing of France’s political map had been halted.

LR heavyweight Xavier Bertrand crushed his far-right opposition in the Hauts-de-France region, cementing his standing as a leading 2022 challenger, while in the greater Paris region Valérie Pécresse was also comfortably re-elected.

With the president of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Laurent Wauquiez, also returned on a high score, LR has three strong hopefuls for the presidential race. Much will depend on who it chooses as its candidate and whether the party unites behind them.

The Socialists, sometimes in second-round alliances with the far-left France Unbowed (LFI) and Greens (EELV), also drew some comfort, especially from Carole Delga’s victory in Occitanie in the south with a record score of 57.8%.

An alarmingly low turnout

Just over one in three French voters bothered to cast a ballot, a historic low since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. While the trend has been apparent for several years, politicians from all sides expressed shock and concern.

One explanation offered was the fact that not many people understand the role of France’s regional governments, which are responsible for promoting economic development, transport and senior secondary schools, and fewer care.

Experts also said the high abstention rate marked “the culmination of the disconnect between the electorate and the political system”, or blamed a lacklustre campaign and people simply choosing to ignore politics after a year of the Covid pandemic.

None of this may be very relevant to 2022

Analysts warned against extrapolating too much from the results, particularly on such a low turnout, but said that with 10 months to go they could imply a more complex race for the Élysée than the long-forecast runoff between Macron and Le Pen.

With the two disruptors-in-chief failing to do much disrupting on Sunday, some saw the results as a signal that the traditional right-left division in French politics was on its way back – “the revenge of the old world”, as Le Monde put it.

But an Ipsos poll published on Sunday showed Macron and Le Pen still neck-and-neck in the first round of the presidential vote on 24% – albeit with Bertrand, should he be selected as the centre-right candidate, closing in on 18%. There’s a long way to go yet.