France’s regional elections likely bellwether for presidential vote

The contest, taking place in two rounds, June 20 and June 27, is most likely to result in repeat of the 2017 duel between Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Macron still struggles to shape a narrative that steals the thunder from the disgruntled constituencies of Le Pen without losing the support of moderates.
Thursday 17/06/2021
French far-right National Rally (NR) party’s leader and NR candidate in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) for the upcoming regional elections Thierry Mariani (L) distribute election leaflets in southern France, June 17, 2021. (REUTERS)
French far-right National Rally (NR) party’s leader and NR candidate in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) for the upcoming regional elections Thierry Mariani (L) distribute election leaflets in southern France, June 17, 2021. (REUTERS)

PARIS - France holds elections starting next Sunday for all 13 regional authorities on the mainland. For President Emmanuel Macron, the stakes are higher than to dismiss the electoral issues at hand as mere local politics.

The next presidential vote is less than a year away. Polls show that the contest taking place in two rounds, June 20 and June 27, is most likely to result in repeat of the 2017 duel between Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, only this time the gap between the two will be narrower.

The regional results do not give a representative snapshot of who will win the presidential vote. However, if the far-right secures its first-ever regional powerbase it would send tremors across the political landscape.

Despite taking positions on illegal migration and extremism that are viewed by analysts as concessions to the far-right, Macron still struggles to shape a narrative that steals the thunder from the disgruntled constituencies of Marine Le Pen without losing the support of moderates.

The stances by the government and its allies on extremism have hardened after this year’s terrorist attacks in France. They have been criticised at times as blurring the lines between fighting violent radicalism and hostility to Islam and Muslims.

Even Macron’s rivals, much further to the right, know it is a slippery slope. National Rally leader Marine Le Pen was careful to point out in recent days that her party “is opposed to radical Islamism and not to Islam.”

Macron’s ruling La Republique en Marche (LaRem), a relative newcomer to French partisan politics, is not expected to win any region outright, revealing the extent to which it has failed to plant roots locally.

For the conservative “Les Republicains” party, the challenge is to hold onto their seven regions and demonstrate they too can serve as a bulwark against the far-right. They may be undermined in doing so if forced into second-round alliances with Macron.

Each party presents a list of candidates. If no single ticket garners more than half the votes in round one, all those with more than 10% of votes go into the second round, meaning there can be three or more parties involved.

Party lists may merge between the first and second round. Historically this has happened to block the far-right from winning, a phenomenon known as a ‘Front Republicain’.

Regional council seats are allocated on a proportional basis. The ticket that wins the most votes wins a bonus of a quarter of the seats. This means Le Pen’s party can win control of a region with less than 50% of the vote in round two.

The southern region encompassing Marseille and the French Riviera, with above average immigration and unemployment, has long given the far-right some of its best scores.

This time, polls show Le Pen’s ticket, headed by a former conservative minister, Thierry Mariani, could win the region that is home to Marseille, France’s second city and tourist hotspots.

Macron’s LaRem is too weak to win on its own, as is the main conservative opposition party, Les Republicains (LR). Even if all anti-Le Pen groups united, they may still struggle to beat her, one poll showed.

Most recent polls for second round give the far right (National Rally) 44% of the ballots trailed by Les Republicains and Macron’s party (LR + LaRem) with 36% of the votes.

A left-wing alliance of socialists and Greens would garner 20% of the votes.

The second battleground is the northern region around Calais, once home to France’s coal-mining industry. This content sees the incumbent and frontrunner to become the conservative’s candidate in the presidential election, Xavier Bertrand, campaigning against Macron’s justice minister and Le Pen’s party spokesman.

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

The most recent polls for second round in this region put the centre right and the far-right in a dead heat with 35% of the votes. Macron’s LaRem stands at 11%.