Who are the winners and losers from France’s local elections?
The regional elections are a snapshot of voter mood as the country emerges from COVID-19 lockdown. So who is up and who is down?
PARIS — The election was hyped as a test run ahead of next year’s French presidential race. But in the event the country’s two political heavyweights, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, flopped, with candidates from the mainstream left and right coming out on top amid historic levels of voter apathy.
Both Le Pen and Macron emerge from the first round weaker than before. The far-right National Rally (RN) had hoped to win power in at least one region, but may end up with none. And the poor results for Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) are a big setback for a party often dismissed as an “empty shell.”
On Sunday, the French voted to renew regional councils in 13 races across the country. A run-off vote is set for next weekend.
Marine Le Pen. Is the far-right leader all talk and no trousers? Le Pen’s allies were tipped as big favorites ahead of the election, hoping to take top seats in as many as three regional councils. But exit polls show the RN only obtained 19 percent of the vote nationally, down eight percentage points from its 2015 result. In the northern region of Hauts-de-France, the RN candidate Sébastien Chenu fell short of expectations and came in a distant second with 24 percent of the vote.
“National Rally voters are loyal, they don’t switch parties, but when they are unhappy, they just don’t turn up,” an ally of Le Pen said in the run-up to the regional elections. The low turnout of RN voters will be driving discussions within the party as to whether Le Pen’s strategy of making the party less electorally toxic and chasing the conservative vote is the right one. On Sunday evening, Le Pen admitted her voters had stayed home, and she called on them “to wake up.” “In massively abstaining, the voters are giving a free rein to those in power. To abstain does not punish them,” she said.
All eyes are now on the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur where there is still hope of a RN victory. The party’s candidate Thierry Mariani, poached from the conservatives, won 36 percent of the vote, ahead of the conservative candidate Renaud Muselier on 31 percent. But a left wing candidate’s decision to pull out of the race boosts Muselier’s chances of victory.
Emmanuel Macron. No amount of spin can hide the truth. The results for the president’s LREM party are dismal. The centrist party won only 10.9 percent of the national vote, according to exit polls. In key races such as in Hauts-de-France, LREM was knocked out of the first round. Late Sunday, the election debrief around the president was, well, brief, according to Playbook Paris. “We’ll be joining forces with others against the RN, but the truth is we are not very present [anywhere],” said one participant.
There’s a lot of talk about why the LREM failed to make a dent in this election: its failure to be a grassroots movement, the backlash against politics in general. But will this change anything ahead of the presidential election? In the short term, the answer appears to be no. The National Rally has failed to make gains and neither the left nor the right have appointed a candidate to run against Macron.
But the poor showing will feed suspicions in many minds that the LREM is not here to stay, but is little more than a piece of machinery serving Macron’s national interests.
Xavier Bertrand. Supporters of the conservative candidate in Hauts-de-France were jubilant when the results rolled in on Sunday evening. Bertrand took 41 percent of the vote in the first round, way ahead of the far-right runner-up Chenu. The results show a surprise surge in popularity for Bertrand, who was neck-and-neck in the polls with his challenger ahead of the vote.
The result will put Bertrand in pole position in the leadership race on the right. The right-wing party Les Républicains is dithering over whether to hold primaries or just choose a “natural” leader as a presidential candidate. Bertrand is casting himself as the champion who can beat the National Rally and ultimately become the next president. Speaking on Saturday, Bertrand said he had “gripped and broken the jaws” of the National Rally. No doubt now that Bertrand’s hand has been strengthened.
It’s also a personal victory for the man who has admitted that he has been dismissed as a “provincial hillbilly” in conservative Parisian circles.
Julien Bayou. It’s a surprise breakthrough for Bayou in the greater Paris region. The 41-year-old leader of the green party Europe-Ecologie Les Verts won close to 13 percent of the vote, marking him as the leading candidate on the left.
On Sunday evening, the candidates from the Socialist Party and the far-left France Unbowed announced they were now backing Bayou. Combined, the left-wing parties took 34 percent of the votes, putting them almost neck-and-neck with the frontrunner, conservative Valérie Pécresse, on 36 percent.
It’s a reminder that the French left is not completely dead and buried, despite being grievously wounded and divided after Macron’s election in 2017. Socialist candidates, many of them incumbents, also look likely to win top jobs in several regional councils.