PARIS – French voters went to the polls for the first round of national regional elections on Sunday, with the far right aiming for a strong performance just as the country’s political center of gravity is shifting to the right.
While regional elections in France are rarely accompanied by high political stakes, this year’s contest is seen as an indicator for next year’s presidential race. Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, shamelessly presented the competition as a dress rehearsal for the 2022 presidential elections, in which she will likely be President Emmanuel Macron’s main challenger.
“The victories we achieve will be so many steps on the road to national victory,” Le Pen told reporters on Friday, as the campaign drew to a close.
The campaign reflected the changing nature of France’s political landscape, which has shifted increasingly to the right in recent months amid heated debates over security, immigration and religious extremism.
For Ms. Le Pen, the regional elections mark a new stage in her strategy for coming to power.
She has tried to soften her party’s image in recent years to win over new converts who, until now, have tried to prevent the far right from coming to power by voting for the dominant party in the best position. of an election – a phenomenon known as the “Republican front.” “
That front began to crumble in last year’s municipal elections, when Ms. Le Pen’s party seized Perpignan, the first city of over 120,000 to fall to the far right. Ms Le Pen hopes this month’s election will further accelerate those gains and serve as a springboard for her to a higher post.
But his party could face a more difficult task in the second ballot, as other competing parties are likely to scramble to keep the far right in power.
In regional elections, all parties with more than 10 percent of the vote go to the second round, when coalitions can be formed to win a majority of the votes.
In 2015, the National Rally won in six regions in the first round but was ultimately beaten overall, a brutal setback that prompted Ms Le Pen to redouble her efforts to normalize her party’s image, while while maintaining its hard positions on immigration. , Islam and security.
Mr. Cautrès said the vote could be marked by a record turnout. A investigation by polling firm IFOP predicted that around 60% of voters – around 20 million in total – would stay away.
“What about the French democratic model? asked Cautrès, noting that abstention has increased in every election in recent years.
In France, where most powers are centralized, regional councils have little influence over long-term policies, which is why some voters see regional elections as unnecessary. Regional councils oversee local infrastructure projects such as high schools, intercity transport networks or regional nature parks, but they barely have a say on big issues like security.
This year’s regional elections also mark a new phase in the restructuring of the country’s political divides, with the traditional left-right divide in tatters while Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen dominate national politics.
In the south-eastern region, called Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the candidate for the head of the National Rally is a defector of the Republicans, the center-right French party.
To ward off the threat of a victory for the far right, Macron’s La République en Marche party concluded an alliance with Les Républicains in May. But the electoral pact only ended up dividing the center-right party, pitting the liberals against the conservatives who called the arrangement a betrayal.
Ms Le Pen, who said Les Républicains was now a party “where starving survivors devour each other,” on Friday called on conservative voters to support her movement in Sunday’s vote.
Mr. Macron has been chasing right-wing voters for several months, pushing forward bills on security and Islamist extremism.
Mr. Macron recently embarked on a six-week political tour of France with the aim of reconnecting with the French after emerging from the coronavirus crisis, and in what appears to be a first step in his re-election campaign scheduled for 2022.