Macron and Le Pen face new test in French regional vote

The first-round results marked a boost for the traditional right-wing The Republicans as well as the Socialist Party, who have been squeezed after the centrist Macron surged into power in 2017 with his brand-new Republic on the Move party.

FILE: French President Emmanuel Macron listens during his formal inauguration ceremony as French President in the Salle des Fetes of the Elysee presidential Palace on 14 May 2017 in Paris. Picture: AFP.

PARIS – France was voting in the second round of regional elections on Sunday after a first round that saw a drubbing for President Emmanuel Macron's ruling party, disappointment for Marine Le Pen's far-right and record low turnout.

For some observers, the outcome of the 20 June first round raised doubts over whether the 2022 presidential election would come down to a duel between Macron and Le Pen in a run-off long seen as the most likely scenario.

The first-round results marked a boost for the traditional right-wing The Republicans as well as the Socialist Party, who have been squeezed after the centrist Macron surged into power in 2017 with his brand-new Republic on the Move (LREM) party.

Analysts warn against too much extrapolation onto a nationwide scale from the results of the regional elections, which choose the heads of France's 13 mainland regions from Brittany in the northwest to the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) region in the southeast.

But there was cross-party concern over the turnout for last week's polls, which were shunned by 66.72% of voters -- a record in modern France.

"What we are seeing is the culmination of a disconnection between voters and the political class," said Jessica Sainty, politics lecturer at Avignon University, while acknowledging the COVID-19 crisis also played a role in high abstention rate.

The woeful turnout prompted a debate over how to improve participation, with several figures including government spokesman Gabriel Attal suggesting electronic voting could help in future.

According to a poll published Thursday, just 36% of voters plan to cast their ballots on Sunday. "France is sulking," the Le Parisien newspaper said.

FAR-RIGHT EYES BREAKTHROUGH

The first-round results put Le Pen's National Rally (RN) ahead in just one region, PACA, a major disappointment after polls showed a possible breakthrough in several areas.

One of the most closely watched races on Sunday will be whether RN candidate Thierry Mariani can defeat his right-wing rival Renaud Muselier in the region.

Gaining control of a region for the first time would be a huge boost for Le Pen as she seeks to convince voters that the RN -- which she has reformed and rebranded since taking over from her firebrand father Jean-Marie -- is a serious party of power.

Muselier could be helped by the withdrawal of left-wing candidates in a repeat of the "Republican Front" seen in past presidential elections to block the far-right.

"The idea of a victory for Mariani -- even if it is far from being probable -- would show that the RN can almost triumph alone over the coalition of all the others and head the powerful executive of a modern region," said Jerome Sainte-Marie, president of the Pollingvox Institute.

Mariani has been accused by critics of being an admirer of authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Prime Minister Jean Castex warned last week that a Mariani victory would be "very serious" for the country.

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