The first round of France’s regional elections left many of the country’s politicians defeated and deflated. But not Xavier Bertrand, who was in an ebullient mood this week as he rallied supporters in a windswept suburb of Dunkirk.
The politician won such a high share of the vote in the northern region of Hauts-de-France that it boosted his chances of being the main centre-right candidate to run against President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential election — a contest for which he has already declared himself.
By contrast, Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National did worse than expected last weekend, and Macron’s governing La République en Marche party performed so poorly it failed even to qualify for this Sunday’s second round vote in four of the 13 regions in France’s European territories.
Bertrand is the incumbent leader of an industrialised region that includes Lille, Calais and Amiens, a position he won six years ago with the help of leftwing parties after he was badly beaten by Le Pen in the first round. This time he neatly reversed the first-round scores, winning a 41 per cent share of the vote against the RN’s 24 per cent.
“We have succeeded in pushing back the Front National,” he told the Financial Times after a Monday night meeting with local mayors and other supporters in rainy Téteghem, near Dunkirk. “I know I have a special responsibility, to make them retreat, to loosen their jaws, to smash the jaws of the Front National.”
With his eye on the Elysée Palace in 2022, the 56-year-old Bertrand is determined to demolish the idea that Macron is the best bulwark against Le Pen. He also wants to counter pollsters’ forecasts that the presidential election is likely to culminate in the same Macron-Le Pen runoff that Macron eventually won in 2017.
Like many opponents of the extreme right, he calls the anti-immigration party by the old and more sinister “National Front” name given by its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, rather than using “National Rally” as it was rebaptised by his daughter Marine, who has tried to recast an organisation with a reputation for racism and anti-Semitism.
“There’s no ‘new-look’ Front National in France. They are exactly the same,” said Bertrand. “I know they are incompetent in economic matters. Lies, defamation and deception — these are the methods of the extreme right.”
However, even a convincing victory this Sunday will not guarantee Bertrand an easy path to the French presidency.
Bertrand has government experience as a former national health minister and labour minister, as well as having been mayor of St Quentin and run one of the regional councils, whose main responsibility is transport policy rather than the vexed national issues of health or law and order.
Yet he already faces stiff opposition from other ambitious politicians of his own Les Républicains centre-right party — which he has technically abandoned for the time being as he wanted to launch his bid for the Elysée without going through a primary.
These rivals include Valérie Pécresse, who also quit the LR to pursue her ambitions, and Laurent Wauquiez, each likely to win again on Sunday in their respective regions of Ile-de-France around Paris and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the south-east.
Bertrand, said Christèle Lagier, assistant politics professor at Avignon university, had “strengthened his position, his legitimacy” after the first round. “But the competition among Les Républicains will be very, very tough . . . I expect his political family to lay down plenty of banana skins. They won’t give it away.”
Vincent Martigny, politics professor at the University of Nice, agreed that Bertrand had strengthened his position, but emphasised the coming fight between potential presidential candidates in the ranks of the centre-right.
“The problem is that one thing has not been settled — how to organise the primary between different leaders who are anti-Macron on the right,” he said.
“A possibility exists that Pécresse and Wauquiez do well in the elections next Sunday, and they might also want to be candidates, among others. One has to ask how the leader of the right will be designated.”
Macron, meanwhile, is on the campaign trail already and unlikely to abandon his bid to be the first French president re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
In terms of policies, Macron and Bertrand are remarkably close, especially since Macron — who used to campaign as “neither right nor left” — has shifted to the right in the past two years, cracking down on Islamists, emphasising law and order and announcing limits on immigration. Both men have also championed industrial investment in northern France, especially for batteries used in electric vehicles, to reduce dependence on Asia.
Analysts say that, while Macron was weakened by Sunday’s poor performance of his party, founded only in 2016, it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions from the results of a regional election with such low turnout. Only a third of voters — and less than a fifth of the under-35s — bothered to cast a ballot.
“It’s not clear that this is damaging for Macron, given that the presidential election is a national event and very focused on the personality of the candidates,” said Lagier.
That is one reason why Bertrand, stocky and combative, portrays himself as a man with his feet on the ground in the provinces, implicitly making a comparison with the hyper-intellectual Macron. “I bring a lot of common sense,” he said.