Le Pen looks to Provence for last hope of victory in French regional elections
At the 17th-century town hall in the Provençal city of Arles, a large tricolour flapped vigorously outside the open window of the mayor’s office last week, animated perhaps by what locals call the mistralet, a gentle summer version of the strong wind that blows through the Rhône valley.
The world heritage city – the largest commune in metropolitan France – has been marked by foreign influence throughout its history: the Romans conquered it in 123BC, leaving the magnificent arena, theatre, necropolis and aqueduct; much later came the artists, Dutchman Vincent Van Gogh and Spanish-born Pablo Picasso among them.
Arles boasts foundations honouring the Puerto Rican photographer Manuel Rivera-Ortiz and Korean artist Lee Ufan, and is home to the Gipsy Kings musicians of Romany origins. This weekend saw the opening of the Luma, an estimated €200m “creative campus” gifted to the city by Swiss-born philanthropist Maja Hoffmann and featuring a tower designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.
In spite of this universal heritage, immigration, particularly from north-west Africa, remains a populist concern – and one that could see this region in the Mediterranean south, Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA), become the only victory for Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National in Sunday’s regional elections.
The RN had been expected to do well in at least five regions in the first-round vote last Sunday. In the end, it came first only in PACA, and by a narrow margin. The election has, so far, been marked by widespread abstention and disappointment for presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen.
While many see the regional elections as a rehearsal for next year’s presidential election, neither the supposed 2022 leadership frontrunners – Emmanuel Macron or Le Pen – had much to celebrate after last weekend’s vote.
Since the first round, which was marked by two-thirds of voters not turning out, the past few days have seen 11th-hour negotiations and alliances between various parties to form what is called a “republican front” to keep out the RN.
In PACA – the RN’s last, best hope – the party’s Thierry Mariani, a defector from the centre-right Les Républicains, won 36% of the vote last Sunday, with the LR’s Renaud Muselier close behind on 32%. Opinion polls have Muselier beating Mariani on Sunday, but in truth it is too close to call.
Patrick de Carolis, the mayor of Arles and former head of France Televisions – the French equivalent of the BBC – ended 19 years of communist control of the city when he was elected last year representing no political party.
De Carolis, who has thrown his support behind Muselier, says poverty and unemployment – running at 15.43% in the city, where the average wage is €2,024 a month – are driving far-right support. “I regret there is this attraction, but I believe it is because neither the traditional left or right has resolved problems. This has meant people have become exasperated, and when they are exasperated they vote RN,” he said.
“We live for five to six months of the year, three months intensively – thanks to our exceptional cultural offer the entire world comes to us for that – but we have a deplorable social and economic situation.”
Asked what he would do if the region was won by the far right, he added: “Its an unknown. We have never worked with the RN so we don’t know what will happen.”
In the past, far-right voters have been among the most motivated to turn out at elections. An unexpected consequence of Le Pen’s attempt to detoxify the party is that the RN appears to now face the same problem as others – getting supporters to vote.
A particular challenge for all parties is encouraging French youngsters to turn out. Last Sunday, almost 90% of 18- to 24-year-olds stayed away.
Bruno Cautrès, a researcher at the Sciences Po centre for political research, CNRS, said many young French did not see voting as “the best way to make things change”.
“There’s a kind of disconnection between interest in politics, which is often real and important, and actual participating in elections. Often this is seen as something that hasn’t changed much,” Cautrès told La Marseillaise newspaper.
“There’s a sociological trend towards individualism and autonomy. Each person feels they must make their own life choices and it’s not for the authorities to tell them what to do.”
On Friday, Le Pen was in a bullish mood. Dismissing the RN’s disappointing results with “it was worse for the others”, she said the party was confident of winning PACA, putting the far right in charge of its first regional authority. “If there’s a massive mobilisation of our voters, we can turn it around,” she said.