Old gang parties unite to block Le Pen – but most French voters boycott election

Next year’s election still seems likely to end in a run-off between President Emmanuel Macron (above left) and Marine Le Pen, but both suffered disappointing results yesterday.

The second round of the French regional elections yesterday ended in disappointment for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN – successor to the French National Front founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen), but disaster for President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘centrist’ party En Marche.

Mme Le Pen had hoped her party might gain control of a region so as to demonstrate its capacity to govern, ahead of next year’s presidential election when she expects to be Macron’s main challenger.

Her main target was the southern region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA), a traditionally strong area both for the RN and in earlier years for the FN. The RN list was headed by Thierry Mariani, who was transport minister a decade ago in the conservative government of Prime Minister Fillon and President Sarkozy and has been the highest profile defector from the centre-right to Mme Le Pen’s ranks.

In last Sunday’s first round, this RN list was narrowly ahead by 36.4% to 31.9%, with the largest of the leftist-green slates on 16.9%. This meant that the latter slate had the right to contest the second round (which is not simply a run-off between the two largest parties, but can be joined by any list that polled above 10% in the first round).

However in a move showing that despite the Le Pen strategy of dédiabolisation (‘de-demonisation’) the RN is still regarded by its opponents as a ‘far right’ / ‘fascist’ threat, the left decided to withdraw from PACA’s second round and endorse the conservative ‘centre right’ slate, headed by incumbent regional president Reynaud Muselier.

This despite the fact that Mme Le Pen is far close to the traditional left than the ‘centre right’ on economic policy. Her party duly lost the PACA second round by 57% to 43%. This was slightly down from the 45.2% achieved by the RN slate (then headed by the leader’s niece Marion Maréchal) in this region six years ago.

Sébastien Chenu (above left) – former head of the LGBT wing of the French centre-right conservative party – was one of several leading conservatives to defect to Marine Le Pen’s RN and headed her slate in the party’s second strongest region, but finished a distant runner-up yesterday.

Potentially good news for Mme Le Pen is that only 34% of the PACA electorate turned out to cast a valid vote yesterday, in line with mass abstention nationwide. In particular, despite calls for a ‘republican front’ against the RN ‘fascists’, 90% of voters under 25 seem to have boycotted the election. Not only did they refuse to turn out to block the ‘far right’ in this second round – they weren’t even interested in the first round, when a vast range of alternatives, from Trotskyists to traditional conservatives, and including different varieties of green, were on the ballot.

Yet it must remain disturbing for the RN leader that although the French government is widely perceived to have failed during the Covid crisis – there is no Boris-style ‘bounce’ for Macron – and despite all her efforts to make her party seem less ‘extreme’, she remains unable to breakthrough to a wider public than the people who have supported her for much of the past decade.

Perhaps as for racial nationalist parties and groups across much of the White world, the RN has been unable to develop a clear message during Covid, with some favouring a version of anti-lockdown or even anti-vaccination theories, while others wanted to maintain a focus on our movement’s traditional issues and criticising (where appropriate) government inefficiency and cronyism in the face of the pandemic.

In the RN’s second-strongest area Hauts-de-France they made almost no progress, from 24.4% in the first round to 25.7% in the second (compared to 42.2% in the equivalent region in 2015, when Marine Le Pen herself headed the slate); in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (one of four mainland regions won by left-green coalitions) the RN slipped from second to third place with 23.8%; while in Brittany (also one by socialists and greens) the RN vote fell from 14.3% in the first round to 13.2% in the second.

President Macron’s party En Marche failed to win a single region, and in several regions polled below 10%.

No breakthrough for Le Pen in low turnout French elections

Next year’s election will be Marine Le Pen’s third attempt to win the French presidency

Yesterday’s regional elections in France were preceded by customary liberal media scare stories about likely breakthrough for a ‘resurgent far right’. Yet the first round results – while undeniably bad news for President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘centrist’ party La République en marche (LREM) – were not a great success for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally – the renamed National Front).

Turnout fell to less than 34%, indicating that the Macron government (unlike Boris Johnson’s UK government so far) is seen as having failed the nation during Covid – yet voters have not swung behind the RN opposition.

The main winners of the first round were ‘centre-right’ conservatives, though next year’s presidential election is still almost certain to end in a choice between Macron and Mme Le Pen.

There are thirteen regional councils governing mainland France (the most important tier below the republic’s national government), plus five overseas. Voters in these regions choose among party lists in a two-round system. To qualify for the second round a list must poll 10% in the first: having done so, it can then fight the second round either by itself or on a combined ticket which can be joined by any other list that polled over 5% in the first round.

As part of Marine Le Pen’s strategy of dédiabolisation to win respectability for her party, it would be important to win control of a region and demonstrate that the RN is capable of holding serious political responsibility.

Her best chance is in the traditional FN/RN stronghold known as PACA – the southern region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Here the RN list is headed by Thierry Mariani, who was transport minister a decade ago in the conservative government of Prime Minister Fillon and President Sarkozy.

Mariani leads a right-wing conservative faction that broke away to ally with Le Pen in 2019 – one of the big successes of her dédiabolisation strategy. Yesterday RN’s list in this region ‘won’ the first round with 36.4%, but was not far ahead of the centre-right conservative list (backed in this region by the President’s party LREM) on 31.9%. A socialist-green list with 16.9% also has the option of contesting next Sunday’s second round and can expect support from a range of smaller green and left-wing parties knocked out in the first round, but despite Mariani’s ‘respectability’ there is likely to be some swing of ‘anti-fascist’ voters behind the conservatives.

Xavier Bertrand is set for re-election as regional president of Hauts-de-France, a boost to his ambition to become conservative presidential candidate next year.

Marine Le Pen’s home region Nord Pas-de-Calais was merged with Picardy in the restructuring of French regions a decade ago and now forms part of Hauts-de-France. Here Sébastien Chenu, one of several open homosexuals among Mme Le Pen’s party leadership, was hoping to defeat one of the leading French conservatives, regional president Xavier Bertrand, who is likely to be the centre-right’s presidential candidate next year.

However, Bertrand’s list won the first round easily with 41.2% ahead of the RN’s 24.4% and the socialist-green list’s 19.0%, with President Macron’s LREM knocked out on 9.1%.

The centre-right also looks likely to win the Île-de-France region that includes Paris and its environs, after its list led the first round with 35.9% ahead of the RN’s 13.1%. The result here did illustrate comical divisions on the French left, with three rival socialist/green lists all qualifying for the second round by polling over 10% (unless they can negotiate a combined slate).

Good news for Marine Le Pen is that her party has qualified for the second round in all thirteen mainland regions, with one first-place and eight runners-up. Aside from the three regions mentioned above, RN votes ranged from 12.3% in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes to 23.2% in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté.

Apart from Corsica (where the RN polled only 4%) and various ‘French’ regions in South America, the Caribbean and Indian Ocean where the RN is predictably weak, Marine Le Pen can claim to lead a serious alternative party of government.

But the main challenge in next Sunday’s second round (and in next year’s presidential election) will be to convert widespread public disillusionment with Macron into positive support for the RN rather than yesterday’s winners – apathy and the ‘centre-right’.

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