Ten months before the presidential elections of 2022, the French will go to the polls this Sunday and the following to elect their regional and departmental councilors.
The vote was originally scheduled for March, but was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
These elections, which they will be the last chance for the French to vote before the heated presidential race in April 2022, will serve as key test for President Emmanuel Macron and its political contenders.
Macron’s centrist party, La République en Marche (LREM), faces the challenge of starting from scratch, as it did not exist when the last regional vote was held six years ago. Opinion polls predict that the ruling party’s candidates will struggle to win regional presidencies.
In contrast, the conservative and socialist center-left parties Les Républicains (LR), which had dominated French politics until their defeats in 2017, remain strong regionally. Each of them currently holds the presidencies of five regional councils, out of a total of 18.
According to the latest opinion polls, the far-right National Grouping party is in a position to win the presidency of at least one region, which would be a first in French history. In reality, many in France see the regional vote as a stepping stone to the Elysee for the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, who lost the 2017 presidential election to Macron.
In previous elections, the majority parties formed a so-called “Republican front” in the second round to prevent the extreme right from winning.
How long will the Republican front hold in these regional and departmental elections and what will it mean for 2022?
From the possible rise of the extreme right to the testing of the strategies of the majority parties for 2022, here is why this vote matters more than you think.
How many regions can the far right win?
Opinion polls indicate that the National Grouping leads in six regions in the first round, with chances of winning the second round in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Center-Val de Loire.
In the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, far-right candidate Thierry Mariani is in a strong position to win the second round “in all scenarios”, according to two recent opinion polls conducted by IFOP-Fiducial and IPSOS Sopra Steria .
Even if the parties of the left withdraw their candidates in the second round under the so-called Republican front, the polls indicate that the current Renaud Muselier (LR) would only get 49% of the votes, compared to 51% for Mariani.
The prospect of the ultra-right ruling the regions gives the government chills. The Minister of the Interior, Gérald Daramanin, went so far as to affirm that these victories would leave a “satanic mark” on the regions.
Christian Le Bart, professor of political science at Sciences Po Rennes, told Euronews that a Nationals win in one or more French regions “It would further anchor this party in the French political landscape”. The expert pointed out that the far-right party already governs in several French cities and towns, including Perpignan or Fréjus, and has participated in regional executives before.
“It would also fuel the 2022 presidential campaign by validating Marine Le Pen’s line and giving the impression that she is on the right track to rise to power,” Le Bart said.
Le Pen has been working for years to “normalize” the image of his party. He promised to get rid of the extremist elements that gravitated around his father’s National Front party, which he renamed. The party did not respond to Euronews’ request for an interview.
“First of all, I think it would be very bad news for the region itself,” MP Roland Lescure, from Macron’s LREM party, told Euronews.
“Any town or city that has been governed by the National Association ends up with fewer subsidies for any creative or cultural content that does not fit their vision of the world, without great governance and sometimes problems with budget management”
“It would probably be a shock if one or two regions were in the hands of the National Concentration and that is why we are going to do everything possible to avoid it”Lescure added.
Is it the end of the “republican front”?
In the last regional elections of 2015, the notion of a “republican front” against the far right received wide support from the majority parties, who did not hesitate to withdraw their candidates from the second round to block the victories of the nationals. This year, however, these alliances should not be taken for granted.
One issue, Le Bart noted, is that “the central leadership of the parties are very weakened and are no longer capable of influencing local political actors.”
In this context, the expert explained, “the balance of power will be measured locally and each candidate will proceed according to their own sensitivity and electoral interest, knowing that the threats of sanction or exclusion no longer carry much weight.”
Few parties have clearly announced that they will withdraw their lists after the first round in the regions where the National Grouping is in a position to win. “Our line has always been clear: no alliances,” said LR leader Christian Jacob.
The socialist party, which is due to make a decision at its National Board on Friday, has not responded to Euronews’ request for an interview.
The republican front “does not prevent the advance of the extreme right”Green MEP Yannick Jadot told AFP. But “on the night of the first round, we will do whatever is necessary,” including “withdraw if there is a real risk” that the far right will win, he added.
For its part, the far-left party, Francia Indómita, described the Republican front as a “totally ineffective requirement.” “People are fed up,” said MP Adrien Quatennens.
Lescure told Euronews that the Republican front “could take many forms.”
“We have to make sure that he does not die and, therefore, perhaps make him be reborn again with another form and figure,” said the legislator and LREM spokesman.
Rather than simply abandon their lists and let the candidates of the other major parties win themselves, the legislator said another option was to “merge the two or three Republican lists that are still in contention so that we can continue to have a Republican front. and, at the same time, preserve the diversity of opinions in the assembly once elected. “
Why is Macron’s party lagging behind in polls?
According to opinion polls, the ruling party has little chance of winning a single region.
“The problem with LREM has always been its difficulty to exist beyond the figure of the president. We are witnessing this paradox of a head of state who, on a personal level, has much higher popularity ratings than those of his predecessors in the same time of his tenure, but this is not reflected in his political party, “Le Bart told Euronews.
“It is a five-year party. By definition we do not have elected officials on the ground,” Lescure said. “So we have to keep pushing, keep working to make sure that we improve and that we put down roots in the country, and that is a great challenge.”
In this context, party officials downplay the importance of voting at the national level.
“I do not think it is a lesson in one sense or another for the presidential elections. We are one year away from those elections and a lot can happen between now and then. Of course, I hope that the president will again be a candidate for reelection,” Lescure told Euronews.
But according to Le Bart, “all the conditions are in place for this vote to be read in direct relation to the presidential election, that is, a national election.” Even Macron voters will take into account that voting for LREM candidates at the regional level is a way to validate their exercise of power at the national level, the expert noted.
What is in these elections for the other parties?
Despite their weakened positions at the national level, both the Socialists and the LR parties could keep the regions they have ruled for years.
“We know that in this type of election there is a bonus for the position or, in any case, for notoriety and political experience,” said Le Bart.
The election will also play an important role in determining the “political distribution” of these parties in the presidential elections, the expert told Euronews.
Xavier Bertrand, who heads the LR lists in the Hauts de France (north) region, declared that he would not stand in the presidential elections if he was not reelected on June 27. The performance of Valérie Pécresse, head of the list for the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris and its suburbs, will also be closely watched by LR.
For the Green Party, the challenge will be to confirm its huge gains in last year’s municipal elections.
Big cities like Lyon or Bordeaux are now ruled by environmentalist mayors. “If environmentalists were able to conquer a region, thanks to an alliance for example, it would be very significant,” said Le Bart, noting that the “option did not seem to arise until now, but anything is possible.”
The far-left party Francia Indómita only presents lists headed by its own candidates in four regions, while it favors alliances with other left-wing parties in others.
What will abstention be like?
French regional elections tend to have low turnout, and opinion polls predict that it will be especially low this Sunday.
54% of registered voters intend to abstain in the first round, compared to 49.91% in 2015, according to a recent IFOP poll.
Participation will be a key factor in shaping the outcome of these elections.
“We know that when voter turnout is low, it is often those in power who benefit because they have a captive electorate, with more or less political patronage,” Le Bart said.
Earlier this week, Jordan Bardella, candidate for the National Grouping in Ile-de-France, told his supporters: “We will win my friends, we will win if and only if we manage to defeat a fearsome enemy: abstention.”
How much power do the French regions have?
Compared to the German Länders or the Spanish autonomous communities, the French regions have limited powers, Le Bart told Euronews.
Among them are economic development, spatial planning, training and public transport.
However, the French regions manage a significant budget and play a relevant role at European level.
“Many of the European funds go directly to the regions of France,” Lescure said, including most of the 40 billion euros planned for the country under the pandemic recovery plan known as Next Generation EU.
From this perspective, having regions run by an anti-European party like the National Group would be a “disaster,” the legislator said.