Macron and Le Pen to review strategies after poor election results
Traditional parties on the left and right are likely to keep control of most regions in mainland France after a historically low turnout in Sunday’s first-round vote and disappointing scores for both Emmanuel Macron’s ruling centrist party and Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally).
Lists of candidates from the mainstream right topped the vote in six out of 13 regions in mainland France, leaving Nicolas Sarkozy’s old party, Les Républicains, as the dominant force, while left lists, where the Socialists dominate, finished first in five.
But after decades of growing abstention and disillusionment with the political process, only about 33% of the electorate turned out to vote in the regional and local départmentales elections. The abstention rate among 18–24-year-olds was over 80%. It was the worst turnout in an election since 1958 – with the exception of a 2000 referendum on the length of the presidential term – leaving Macron’s entourage shaken.
The interior minister, Gérard Darmanin, said: “Abstention is a message. The French people are telling politicians they do not trust them.”
The low turnout made it difficult to draw broad conclusions from the local votes about France’s presidential race next year, analysts warned. Polls currently predict a run-off between the centrist Macron and the far-right Le Pen in the spring.
But both Macron and Le Pen’s parties will now review their campaign strategy with the second round scheduled for 27 June.
Macron’s party, La République En Marche (La REM), which in 2017 promised a new centrist pragmatism to end the traditional right and left, suffered a historic first-round defeat for a party of government. Despite the steady increase in Macron’s personal approval ratings as France’s coronavirus lockdown ends, the party was unable to capitalise on Macron’s presidency, even in his areas of traditional voter support – such as Paris, Brittany and the Lyon area.
La REM’s low scores showed how the party had failed to convert four years in power at national level into grassroots local support for recognisable local figures. In the northern region of Hauts-de-France, where Macron sent five government ministers to campaign, including the high-profile justice-minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, the party’s list scored less than 10% and was eliminated in the first round.
“It is a reminder that we, as the presidential majority, have work to do to build up a local presence, which is a long and laborious task that doesn’t happen in one election,” the party’s leader, Stanislas Guerini, told France Inter radio.
Le Pen’s National Rally took around 19% of the vote across France, around nine points lower than in the last regional elections in 2015, when it had capitalised on anger after the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The party was hit by the record abstention rate, which was particularly high among its low-income supporters. The pollsters Ifop calculated that 73% of people who had voted for Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election did not turn out to vote in Sunday’s regional first round, compared with 60% of Macron’s voters who did not turn out. “I can only but regret this civic disaster, which has very largely deformed the electoral reality of the country and given a misleading idea of the political forces at play,” Le Pen said. “If you want things to change, get out and vote.”
The far-right party’s main focus is now the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, where its candidate, Thierry Mariani, topped the first-round with 36.3%, ahead of the right’s candidate on 31.9%. Whether the far-right can win its first ever region next Sunday will depend on the extent of tactical voting against it. The leftwing candidate, Jean-Laurent Félizia, is under pressure to withdraw in favour of the mainstream right. But when the left pulled out in the last regionals in order to stop Le Pen’s party, it meant they had no seat on the regional council for six years. Another six years in the wilderness was not a good prospect for Félizia, who on Monday said he would stand in the run-off.
The leader of the Socialist party, Olivier Faure, said the good showing by established Socialist regional heads likely to keep their positions, meant “we are not condemned to a Macron-Le Pen duel [in the presidential] next year”. The Greens’ scores in regions like the Île-de-France around Paris and Pays de La Loire meant they would play a key role in alliances on the left. But with no clear presidential candidate among the Greens or the Socialists for 2022, it remains to be seen how a presidential candidate on the left would be chosen.
Sunday’s vote boosted several key regional figures on the right who are jostling to be chosen as presidential candidate next year. Xavier Bertrand, the regional leader of the Hauts-de-France region, has attempted to position himself as the only presidential candidate who can beat Le Pen. Bertrand scored 42% in the regional first-round and is favourite to win the second round after the far-right’s score decreased in Le Pen’s traditional heartlands in former mining and industrial areas. “We’ve unlocked the jaws of the National Front in order to smash them here,” Bertrand said, referring to Le Pen’s party by its previous name.
Valérie Pécresse, the rightwing leader of the Île-de-France region surrounding Paris, also scored well and intends to compete to be presidential candidate for the right. Several parties on the left have united against her in next Sunday’s second round. Laurent Wauquiez, another rightwing regional figure in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, could also compete to be candidate.