Gains seen for far-right in French regional polls

359

PARIS, June 20, 2021 (BSS/AFP) – France heads to the polls for the first
round of regional elections on Sunday that could see Marine Le Pen’s far-
right party make gains and step further into the political mainstream.

The election will see new assemblies elected for mainland France’s 13
regions and 96 departments, with Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) tipped to win
at least one region for the first time in what would be a major coup.

Le Pen is not standing as a candidate, but she has been campaigning hard
ahead of presidential elections next year that surveys show could end up
being a close race between her and centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

“What would be great for her (Le Pen), and would spark some momentum in the
pre-presidential campaign, would be if the National Rally won a region,”
Stephane Zumsteeg from the Ipsos polling firm told AFP.

Though far-right politicians preside over a handful of towns, running a
region with a budget of billions of euros and powers over schools, transport
and economic development would lend it the sort of legitimacy that Le Pen
craves, analysts say.

The one most likely to tip is the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur,
where the RN is fronted by Thierry Mariani, a former minister who defected
from the centre-right Republicans party in 2019.

The voting will be held over two consecutive Sundays, with a second run-off
vote on June 27 necessary unless parties win more than 50 percent in the
first round.

– Prediction problems –

Analysts caution against trying to extrapolate too much from the results
that in many cases will be driven by local dynamics and a high abstention
rate, limiting how much they should be seen as indicators for the larger
political picture in France.

But the outcome will inevitably shape the narrative in the coming weeks,
particularly with regard to the strength and electability of Le Pen, as well
as the state of Macron’s enfeebled party, the Republic on the Move (LREM).

“These elections are never good for the party in power. You always get it
in the neck,” a minister told AFP last month.

Predictions are difficult because of the two-stage electoral system and the
impact of tactical voting, which usually sees mainstream parties gang up to
keep the far-right out of power.

A survey by the Ipsos and Sopra Steria groups last week showed RN
candidates leading in six of the 13 mainland regions in the first round,
meaning results on Sunday night might suggest sweeping dominance for the
party.

But because of anti-RN tactical voting, they could end up losing all of the
run-off votes — as they did at the time of the last elections in 2015.

A possible record abstention rate of up to 60 percent is also seen as major
factor.

“The more abstention goes up, in terms of the number of votes cast, the
extreme ends of the political spectrum are the winners,” Pierre Lefebure, a
political scientist at the Sorbonne university in Paris.

“Above all the RN which has a very committed electorate that has been fired
up by campaign material that features Marine Le Pen’s face everywhere just a
year from the presidential election,” he added.

Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the left-leaning Jean-Jaures
Foundation, believes the vote will likely serve as another step in the
normalisation of the once-fringe far right.

“You can see that it’s not so much that the ideas of the National Rally are
more popular or are more accepted by French society,” he told AFP. “It’s that
the party no longer scares people enough to spark a wave of opposition.”

Voters have largely shrugged off a series of scandals that have enveloped
at least half a dozen RN candidates over their past racist or anti-Semitic
comments, or criminal records.

The vote is also seen as critical for centre-right presidential hopefuls
Xavier Bertrand, head of the Upper France region, and Valerie Pecresse, who
runs the Paris area, who are both running for re-election.

The election could also result in gains for the green EELV party, which
performed strongly in local elections last year. Polls open at 0600 GMT.