Four years after it crashed out of the first round of the 2017 presidential election, for the first time in the fifth republic, France’s centre-right opposition has the wind back in its sails. The mainstream conservative Republicans and their allies won seven out of the 12 mainland French regional councils in elections on Sunday, comfortably fending off their far-right challengers and inflicting a crushing defeat on President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche. For a party that went into the regional campaign looking divided and demoralised, it was a remarkable turnround.
Regional elections may be an unreliable guide to next year’s contest for the Elysée Palace. Regional councils have limited powers and, in a large country like France, their leaders lack the proximity and relevance to voters of local mayors. Two-thirds of the electorate did not bother to vote. Next year’s presidential race will be another matter.
Two conclusions can still be drawn. The first is that the centre of gravity of French politics has tilted decidedly to the right and that is where next year’s elections will be decided. The left proved more resilient than anticipated but is split between different parties.
The second is that the centre-right has the political momentum as the country gears up for the presidential campaign whereas the far-right Rassemblement National, led by Marine Le Pen, flopped. Even in the southern region of Provence-Alpes Cote d’Azur, the only place it came out on top in the first round, the far-right was soundly beaten by the incumbent. The glass ceiling holding RN back from higher executive office than the handful of town halls under its control is intact.
Victory on Sunday has given three mainstream conservative contenders a launch pad for their presidential ambitions. Foremost among them is Xavier Bertrand, the president of the northern Hauts-de-France region, who lost no time on Sunday night in declaring he was now part of a three-way presidential race with the frontrunners Macron and Le Pen. A career politician, Bertrand’s pitch is to be a more conventional centre-right version of Macron without the president’s Jupiterian personality which seems to turn off so many French voters. His claim to be a stronger rampart against the extreme right than Macron was enhanced by his ample margin of victory over Le Pen’s regional candidate on Sunday.
Opinion polls suggest Bertrand would beat Le Pen by a wider margin than Macron would in a presidential run-off in April. But although he has enjoyed an opinion poll bounce thanks to his regional success, Bertrand is still only credited with 16 per cent support in a first-round presidential vote. He has a lot of catching up to do and will need a clean run for the centre-right nomination. Two other regional presidents who were easily re-elected on Sunday — Valérie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez — harbour their own ambitions. France’s conservatives excel at fighting each other. And the divisions between moderates and socially conservative Eurosceptics are still there.
Macron’s popularity is in better shape as France emerges from the pandemic. But he has a dilemma. He won power by appealing to both centre-right and centre-left but has steadily shifted to the right. To shore up support among conservatives he must revive economic and welfare reforms. If he pushes too hard, he could reignite social protests and damage his re-election chances. The president conjured up a political identity by pretending to eclipse old ideological affiliations. The centre-right’s recent success suggests there is still life left in them.