Right-wing extremists weaken as conservatives lead the French regional election

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A woman will cast her vote in the regional elections in Marseille, southern France, on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo / Daniel Cole)

PARIS (AP) – Marine Le Pen’s far-right party stumbled, French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists collapsed, and incumbent Conservatives stormed forward in Sunday’s first round of regional elections, dominated by security issues and a record low turnout.

What was meant to be a vote on local issues like transport, schools and infrastructure turned into a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential election as prospective presidential candidates took up the regional campaign to test ideas and gain supporters. Macron’s rivals on the left and right particularly condemned his government’s handling of the pandemic.

The scramble seemed to put some voters off, and polls showed less than 34% showed up. Politicians from across the spectrum asked voters to stay home to wake up for the crucial second round of voting on June 17th.

Le Pen described the low turnout as “a civil catastrophe that is distorting the electoral reality in the country and creating a misleading vision of current political forces”.

The result is a clear setback for the Le Pen National Rally, although it ranked second in most regions according to early official results and polling forecasts. She hopes to gain control of a region for the first time in order to bolster her decade-long efforts to legitimize a party that has long been considered an anti-democratic, anti-Semitic pariah.

It had risen high in pre-election polls and steered campaigning discourse towards its preferred issues like police and immigration – although both issues are dealt with by the central government rather than the regional councils. The party dominated the first round of the last regional elections in 2015, but collapsed in the runoff when parties and voters united against them.

The result is also a deep embarrassment for Macron, whose young party Republic on the Move had first hoped to gain a foothold regionally but was unable to inspire voters.

Forecasts by three polling institutes show that the Conservative Republican Party, which currently rules seven of the 13 regions of mainland France, received the most votes between 27 and 29% on Sunday.

It was followed by the National Rally with 18-19%, then the Socialist Party and its allies, the Greens, Macron’s Republic on the move and the left-wing extremist France Unbowed. Early official results from each region reflected a similar breakdown.

Parties that receive more than 10% of the vote advance to the runoff election, which determines the number of seats each party holds on regional councils.

Many polling stations were largely empty when elections began in schools and community centers from Marseille on the Mediterranean coast to Le Touquet on the English Channel. Those who showed up to vote had to remain masked and socially distant, and carry their own pens to sign electoral registers.

Posing potential presidential candidates frustrated voters like Patrice Grignoux, a 62-year-old tech advisor who cast his vote in Paris.

“The presidential election is a world apart,” he told the Associated Press. “If you take Brittany or the Paris region, it’s completely different. The north is also completely different. … There are issues that you can find at regional level, but have nothing to do with national problems.”

A key battle was in Hauts-de-France, a part of northern France that also includes the port of Calais, where five of Macron’s government ministers joined the campaign – but, according to initial results, his party did not even reach the runoff election.

Another race to watch is the region that includes Provence, the French Riviera and part of the Alps, where Thierry Mariani, candidate for the National Rally, appeared to have a smaller lead than expected over the conservative incumbent. Mariani has said he wants more police and no more public funding for groups that promote individual communities that many see as target groups for Muslim associations or LGBTQ movements.

Macron’s party did not exist when voters last elected regional leaders in 2015. She feels disaffected with Macron’s policies, including among rural voters who supported the yellow vests’ uprising against perceived economic injustice.

The virus only played a minor role in the vote. As infections subsided and vaccinations spread, the French government recently reopened long-closed restaurants, shops, and travel options. From Sunday, the Prime Minister lifted an unpopular curfew for coronaviruses overnight in time for the election.



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