French Regional Poll Leaves Field Open For Presidential Race

The outcome of next year’s French presidential election looks increasingly uncertain after incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who lead national polls, registered dismal showings in a regional ballot on Sunday.

Macron’s LREM group, which upended France’s two-party system in 2017, is set to get just 6.7% of the nationwide vote to renew metropolitan councils, according to exit polls. Le Pen’s National Rally is on track to garner 19.8%, a worse showing than in the last regional election in 2015. The final nationwide tally is expected later Monday.

French Regional Poll Leaves Field Open For Presidential Race

A record low turnout makes it hard to read too much into these results. And local races don’t tend to indicate what would happen in a presidential election. Yet the traditional center-right looks set to obtain 38.8% of the votes and left-leaning parties 34.7%, a boost they will try to use to gain momentum as the campaigns go into high gear.

“The field is really open,” said Emmanuel Riviere, head of international polling and political advisory at Kantar. “It’s hard to say today who will be present in the second round of the presidential election and what themes will be important in the public debate.”

Among possible candidates is Xavier Bertrand, a conservative re-elected in the northern Hauts-de-France region. He made it clear he’s planning to throw his hat in the ring in April 2022, saying on Sunday night that he has gotten the “strength to go and meet all the French people.”

“The path of hope starts now, starts here,” he added.

Presidential Hopefuls

French Regional Poll Leaves Field Open For Presidential Race

Others include Laurent Wauquiez, who is set to take the region around Lyon, and Valerie Pecresse who defeated a green-led left-wing coalition and came out first in the Paris region. Both Pecresse and Bertrand are right-wing, and former members of the conservative Republican party.

On the left, Julien Bayou, the leader of Europe-Ecology The Greens has emerged as strong potential candidate, along with far-left France Unbowed party leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris and Yannick Jadot, a green member of European parliament.

Macron’s party fared poorly in the first round of this vote, and isn’t expected to win any region on its own, a repeat of last year’s failure to secure any major cities in the municipal elections.

Not having a strong local base didn’t prevent Macron from winning the top job in 2017, and his popularity has recently jumped close to 50%. In France, the president’s personality matters more than anything else.

French Regional Poll Leaves Field Open For Presidential Race

Veering Right

But the dismal showing could discourage grass roots supporters who the president will need to knock at doors and hand out leaflets next year, and it’s unlikely to boost the morale of the party members he’ll need to help drive the presidential campaign.

With surveys suggesting the French are inching to the right, both Macron and Le Pen have been focusing on security, immigration and the role of religion in society. Le Pen’s candidates went especially hard on those themes while out on the campaign trail, even though safety doesn’t fall under the remit of regional councils.

Her candidate in the Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur region that’s home to Marseille, Thierry Mariani, lost by 17 points after the left candidate withdrew his list to block him. Mariani was Le Pen’s best chance to conquer a region for the first time.

Le Pen’s National Rally appears to have alienated her base in trying to moderate the views of the anti-immigration party founded by her father to appeal to more people, according to Jean-Philippe Dubrulle, head of opinion at Ifop, a pollster.

“A low turnout used to benefit Le Pen because her voters were very motivated,” he says. “This time, her electorate went back to abstention.”

That could rekindle internal divisions within the movement.

All eyes will be on Le Pen’s niece -- the more conservative Marion Marechal-Le Pen -- who left the party after her aunt failed to beat Macron in 2017. Marechal-Le Pen set up a private school to train a new “patriotic elite,” but keeps allies within the National Rally and is expected to try and succeed to her aunt.

In a short address, Le Pen blamed her poor showing on rivals building alliances against the far-right, and what she called the government’s “disastrous” organization of the elections amid the coronavirus epidemic.

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