French far-right falls short in regional elections ahead of presidential vote

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PARIS, June 27 (Reuters) – The French far right again failed to win a single region in elections on Sunday, exit polls showed, depriving its leader Marine Le Pen of a chance to show her party is fit for power ahead of next year’s presidential election.

The southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) had been seen as the far-right Rassemblement National party’s best opportunity to secure its first ever regional power base, but parties from the left to right united in a ‘republican front’ to keep it out.

Initial exit polls by IFOP and Opinionway showed the incumbent conservatives triumphing by a roughly 10 point margin in the run-off vote in PACA.

“This evening we won’t win in any region because incumbents entered into unnatural alliances and did all they could to keep us out and prevent us from showing the French our capacity to lead a regional administration,” Le Pen told supporters.

Le Pen blasted the government for a disastrously organised vote after roughly two in every three voters abstained.

The results raise questions over how successful Le Pen’s strategy of softening the image of her anti-immigration, euro-sceptic party to try to eat into the traditional right’s vote has been.

Even so, analysts say the apparent failure of Le Pen and her party to win in two of its strongholds should not be extrapolated on to next year’s presidential election.

‘LA MACRONIE’

The exit polls showed that the vote was won in each of France’s 13 regions by the incumbent centre-right or centre-left lists after President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party, which didn’t exist at the time of the last regional vote in 2015, also failed to secure a single region on its own.

Its poor showing underlines how Macron’s party has failed to establish itself at the local level and the “la macronie” wave that swept him to power revolves around the figure of the president.

Senior conservatives crowed that the centre-right’s strong performance nationwide meant it was the best-placed force for change.

In another contest in the northern Hauts-de-France region, the centre-right ticket headed by conservative Xavier Bertrand, a contender for the presidential vote, headed for a comfortable victory over the far-right.

“The far-right has been stopped in its tracks and we have pushed it back sharply,” Bertrand told his supporters moments after the polls closed.

“This result gives me the strength to seek the nation’s vote,” Bertrand said, alluding to next year’s election.

Turnout was an estimated 35%, pollsters said. Voters typically have little affinity with their regional administrations that are responsible for promoting economic development, transport and high schools.

“I have no intention whatsoever to go and vote today, simply because I’ve lost faith in our politicians,” Parisian Jean-Jacques told Reuters TV while strolling on one of the River Seine’s bridges during the day. (Reporting by Michel Rose, John Irish and Ardee Napolitano; Writing by Richard Lough Editing by Jan Harvey, Frances Kerry and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)