The first round of regional elections last Sunday was a dispiriting exercise for France’s political parties given that only 33 per cent of the electorate bothered to turn out to vote for them. But it was particularly bruising for President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche, which limped over the line in fifth place.
It was also a big disappointment for the far-right Rassemblement National, which had hoped to take over a number of regional councils, using the gains as a launch pad for leader Marine Le Pen’s campaign for next April’s presidential election. The Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant party formerly known as the National Front is in pole position in only one region — Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur on France’s Mediterranean coast — and even there seems likely to lose to a united opposition.
It would be unwise to infer too much from an unengaging regional poll. In next year’s high-stakes presidential contest the future of France — and potentially the EU — hangs in the balance. With life returning to normal after the traumas of the pandemic and with summer holidays approaching, voters clearly had other things on their minds. The feeble participation of 33 per cent distorted the results. Local incumbents prospered. The highly personalised race for the presidency, the pinnacle of a centralised state, will naturally have a different salience and dynamic.
Nonetheless, this month’s regional elections have shaken up assumptions and forced the two leading contenders to reappraise their strategies. What had looked like an unavoidable rematch between Macron and Le Pen — a run-off that opinion poll data suggest the French public do not want — is no longer so certain.
Macron’s re-election strategy has been to present it as an inevitable and stark choice between the optimistic progressive and the cynical nationalist. The proposition has validity. Opinion polls suggest it may well be the choice the French have to make. But it serves to relegate questions about Macron’s record, character and future agenda.
Moreover, his centre-right and centre-left opponents contend that after a tumultuous four years in the Elysée Palace, he is too divisive a figure to defeat the far-right. Le Pen’s party may have been knocked back in regional elections this week but Macron’s party can hardly claim credit.
Those that can are the centre-right Republicans and their allies, especially Xavier Bertrand, the president of Hauts-de-France, a former industrial region where the RN is strong. Bertrand could now become a real threat to Macron’s chances of qualifying for the second round but only if the notoriously factional Republicans — which he has technically left to set up his own campaign — rally around him.
For Le Pen, the question is why so many of her voters failed to cast their ballots. Maybe they do not care about regional polls, although they did in 2015 when the RN soared. Maybe this was not the moment to vent their anger at the political establishment. Or it could be that the party is itself becoming too establishment. Some hard-right voices say Le Pen has tacked too close to the centre in her quest to normalise the party. Eric Zemmour, a TV polemicist with convictions for inciting racial hatred, could even try to outflank her to the right.
Le Pen does appear, though, to command solid core support that will vote for her when the stakes are high. Macron, meanwhile, has to govern. He has to fend off a challenge from Bertrand to the right while maintaining an appeal to the left for an eventual run-off. A far-right victory, despite this week’s setback, cannot be discounted.