UPDATE – French far right irked by election results, southern region in play

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Update 2200h – Mainstream left-wing and right-wing parties surged ahead in French regional elections Sunday, outpacing both Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, according to exit polls.

France’s far right performed worse than predicted in Sunday’s regional elections, exit polls showed, leaving victory in the southern battleground of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur and a platform for the 2022 presidential election in the balance.

Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National expressed frustration at a record low turnout, as the centre right made its first comeback at the ballot box since a disastrous showing in the 2017 presidential election and President Emmanuel Macron’s party finished fifth.

The high abstention rate in Sunday’s first-round vote, projected at 68.5% by pollster Elabe, coincided with a sunny Sunday and emergence from months of tough COVID-19 curbs.

“This evening the government won because for the last few weeks it has been in search of a massive abstention rate,” said Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s lead candidate in the greater Paris region.

An IPSOS exit poll showed the centre-right Les Republicains winning 27.2% of the national vote, ahead of the far right on 19.3%, followed by the Green party, the Socialist Party and Macron’s La Republique en Marche on 11.2%.

The regional elections, for which a second round of voting will be held on June 27, offer a taste of the voter mood ahead of next year, and a test of Le Pen’s credentials.

She has made a concerted push to detoxify her party’s image and erode the mainstream right’s vote with a less inflammatory brand of eurosceptic, anti-immigration populist politics.

In the northern Hauts-de-France region, Les Republicains performed stronger than expected, according to exit surveys, polling ahead of the far right with a wider-than-forecast margin.

The party’s lead candidate in the north, Xavier Bertrand, who is pitching to be the conservative’s presidential candidate in 2022, said the centre right had shown it was the most effective bulwark against the far right.

Opinion surveys project Le Pen will poll highest in the first round of next year’s presidential vote, propelled by a support base fed up with crime, threats to jobs from globalisation and a ruling elite viewed as out of touch with ordinary citizens.

Le Pen’s party has never before controlled a region. If she wins one next week, it would send a message that a Rassemblement National president in 2022 cannot be ruled out.

Two exit polls showed Rassemblement National finishing top in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, but with a narrower-than-expected margin over the centre right’s Renaud Muselier, who had struck an alliance with Macron’s party.

Results of Sunday’s first round will send parties into backroom dealing for two days to strike alliances ahead of the second round.

Update 2100h – France’s far-right party topped the first round in Sunday’s regional elections in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, two exit polls showed, a key battleground that Marine Le Pen wants to win to boost her credibility ahead of the 2022 presidential election.

The exit polls showed The Rassemblement National winning the southern region with a narrower than expected margin over the centre-right’s Renaud Muselier, who had struck an alliance with President Emmanuel Macron’s party.

Turnout nationwide was projected at a record low with an abstention rate of 68.5%, according to pollster Elabe, as voters preferred to enjoy a hot, sunny Sunday as the country emerges from months of tough COVID-19 curbs on civil freedoms.

The regional elections are a taste of voter mood ahead of next year and a test of the credentials of Le Pen, who has made a concerted push to detoxify her party’s image and erode the mainstream right’s vote with a less inflammatory brand of eurosceptic, anti-immigration populist politics.

A second round will be held on June 27.

Le Pen will almost certainly be Macron’s number one challenger next year, propelled by a support base fed up with crime, the threat to jobs from globalisation and a distant ruling elite. If she wins a region it would send a message that a Le Pen victory in 2022 cannot be ruled out.

In the northern Hauts-de-France region, the centre-right Les Republicains party performed stronger than expected, according to exit surveys, polling ahead of the far-right with a wider margin than expected.

Update 2000h Two exit polls showed the centre-right Les Republicains came top in the first round of a regional election in the northern Hauts-de-France region on Sunday, beating Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National into second place.

President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party failed to reach the 10% threshold to qualify for the second round, the exit polls showed. A win for Les Republicains lead candidate Xavier Bertrand would bolster his chances of becoming the conservative’s presidential candidate.

OpinionWay/Cnews poll:

Les Republicains: 39%

Rassemblement National: 28%

Macron’s LaRem: 9%

Turnout low

French voters went to the polls on Sunday in regional elections that will test the appeal of far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s softened image less than a year before the next presidential election with a record low turnout expected.

Coming after a gruelling year and a half of lockdowns, curfews and restrictions, Sunday’s first round is likely to prove dire for President Emmanuel Macron, whose party is projected to win none of mainland France’s 13 regions.

Boosted by a resurgence of law-and-order issues during the campaign, despite the fact French regions have no police powers, Le Pen is hoping to capitalise on a rebrand that has seen her ditch promises of “Frexit” and inflammatory rhetoric.

“She appears less extreme in the eyes of the French, less dangerous for democracy, than she did a decade ago,” Brice Teinturier, an analyst with pollster IPSOS told Reuters.

The best chance for her Rassemblement National party is in the south of France, the region around Marseille and Nice, where one of Le Pen’s lieutenants, a former conservative minister, is projected by one opinion poll as winning the race even if all parties rally against him.

Gaining one region, for the first time ever, would give Le Pen a major boost less than a year before presidential elections, and would be a slap in the face for Macron, who has painted himself as a bulwark against the far right.

“If the choice is effectively between the Rassemblement National and the centre-right, like Mr. Macron, personally I will not vote (in the presidential elections),” film director Emmanuel Barraud, 61, told Reuters outside a polling station in Paris.

“I think we must accept that the game is over, and we must start preparing for the future and the future is reconstructing a real Leftist party.”

VERY LOW TURNOUT

Turnout by late afternoon was one of the lowest for a French election in history at just 26.7%, down from 43% in 2015 and 39.3 % in 2010. Pollster OpinionWay predicted an abstention rate of 68%.

The far right is also likely to do well in two other regions, around Calais in the north and in Burgundy, helped by low turnout in a country whose attention is shifting to summer holidays to forget the pandemic.

In the north, the incumbent and frontrunner to become the conservatives’ candidate in the presidential election, Xavier Bertrand, is facing Le Pen’s party spokesman and Macron’s justice minister.

Whether Macron’s party reaches the 10% threshold will determine if it can force Bertrand into an alliance to defeat the far right, which would undermine his pitch as Macron’s opponent-in-chief in 2022.

However, a win for Bertrand would bolster his chances of becoming the conservatives’ presidential candidate. Macron aides see the one-time health minister as a rival who would erode the president’s centre-right voting base.

Results of Sunday’s first round will send parties into frantic backroom dealing for two days to strike alliances ahead of June 27’s final round.

“I came to vote so that the totalitarian parties like the France Insoumise (far-left), or the Greens or the Rassemblement National – don’t win,” said Vincent Thomas, a 52-year-old artist who was also voting in Paris.

(Reporting by Michel Rose and Reuters TV; editing by Christina Fincher, Raissa Kasolowsky and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Reuters