French voters on Sunday inflicted a sharp setback on the far-right National Rally party in the first round of nationwide regional elections, dashing Marine Le Pen’s hopes of turning the vote into a springboard for next year’s presidential race.
A center-right party, Les Républicains, appeared to cement its hold on the country, positioning itself as a strong challenger to president Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist party trailed in all regions.
That was a sharp decline from the first-round results of the previous regional elections in 2015, when National Rally finished first in six regions. “It’s a disappointment, for sure,” Louis Aliot, a leading party figure, told France 2 television minutes after the results were released.
Polling agencies estimated on Sunday that Les Républicains had pulled ahead in six of France’s 13 mainland regions, capturing about 30 per cent of the vote nationwide. By contrast, National Rally came first in only one region and received 20 per cent of the overall vote.
Sunday’s vote was marked by a record-low turnout. Roughly 34 per cent of voters cast ballots, meaning that about 30 million people stayed away. In the last regional election, the turnout was 49 per cent, while two decades ago it was almost 70 per cent.
Though regional elections in France rarely carry high political stakes, this year’s were regarded as a bellwether for the approaching presidential race. Ms Le Pen had framed the contest as a dress rehearsal for the 2022 elections, in which she will most likely be the main challenger to Mr Macron.
Several leaders of Les Républicains have also been counting on the regional elections to build momentum for a potential presidential bid. The vote on Sunday coincided with the first day of the lifting of an eight-month coronavirus curfew.
The political campaign – which was delayed by a year because of the pandemic – has been marked by acts of violence against political leaders, letters from military personnel warning of an impending civil war and inflammatory speeches fueling France’s growing culture wars.
The second round of voting next Sunday will determine the final results, and changes in turnout between the two rounds could potentially shift the momentum in favour of one party or the other. But the center-right appeared on course to make strong gains.
In the northern region of Hauts-de-France, the candidate of Les Républicains, Xavier Bertrand, pulled ahead Sunday with 43 per cent of the vote. His main challenger, Sébastien Chenu of the National Rally, came second with only 24 per cent of the vote – about 16 points down from 2015.
Mr Bertrand, who is the incumbent candidate, said at a news conference that he had broken “the jaws of the National Rally, their demagogy, their sterile proposals, their intolerance.”
By contrast, the results in the Hauts-de-France region made clear the failure of Macron’s party, La République en Marche, to plant roots locally. The party garnered only 8.5 per cent of the vote, knocking it out of the next round of voting. (Parties need at least 10 per cent of the vote to qualify.)
Mr Bertrand has already announced his candidacy for the presidency, and the vote Sunday seems sure to give his campaign a boost.
In most regions, Mr Macron’s centrist party placed third or fourth, trailing mainstream parties on the right and the left. That was a blow to Mr Macron’s ambitions to sideline the country’s old traditional parties in favor of his young political movement that straddles right and left.