Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National party fell short of expectations in the first round of France's regional elections on Sunday, leaving the Les Républicains party and other centre-right politicians in a strong position for the second and final set of ballots next weekend.
The relatively poor results for the anti-immigration RN – in a record low turnout of about 33 per cent – will also provide some comfort for Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to face Ms Le Pen when he seeks re-election as president next year.
Ms Le Pen described the low turnout as a “civic disaster” that gave a false impression of the political situation. “If you want things to change, you must vote,” she said in a short speech as the results began to emerge.
Xavier Bertrand, the centre-right leader of the Hauts-de-France region in the north, was on course for re-election and received a boost to his own presidential ambitions, with early estimates from BFMTV after polls closed giving him 44 per cent of the vote, against 24.4 per cent for Ms Le Pen's RN.
Recalling that the RN had been ahead in the region after the first round in 2015, Mr Bertrand boasted in a speech of “breaking the jaws” of his far-right rivals in this year’s electoral battle. Ms Le Pen had campaigned in the north and hoped to flip the region to her party in Sunday’s vote.
Early estimates suggested that Ms Le Pen’s party might be within reach of a first-round lead in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur in the south. But even there the performance was less impressive than predicted by opinion polls, which had suggested the RN would take control of the region after the second round in the first such victory in its history.
That now looks less easy to achieve for the RN, since other parties have in the past tended to unite in a so-called “republican front” in second-round votes to keep the extreme right from power.
Nationwide, centre-right lists were forecast to receive about 29 per cent of the votes cast in the first round, against 19 per cent for the RN, 16 per cent for the Socialist party, 13 per cent for the Greens and 11 per cent for Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party.
Incumbent parties performed well, with LR politicians in the lead in the Grand Est region in the east, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the southeast and Ile-de-France around Paris. The Socialists expected to hold Occitanie and Brittany in the west.
Gérald Darmanin, interior minister, said the record low turnout was “particularly worrying”, adding: “Our collective effort must be to mobilise the French for the second round.”
The low turnout did not fulfil the fears of Mr Macron’s ally François Bayrou by benefiting the extreme right or the extreme left, and may have been the result of voter weariness with politics and a desire to enjoy themselves after more than a year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The French have their minds on other things completely,” Brice Teinturier of polling group Ipsos told a webinar last week. “We are coming out of the pandemic . . . and the outlook for the economy is getting much better.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021