French far right fails to gain control in key regional elections

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally suffered a stinging setback in French regional elections on Sunday after they were shut out from winning control of any regional government, blunting her momentum ahead of the 2022 presidential vote.

David Vincent/AP
A woman casts her ballot for the regional elections in Liffre, France on June 27, 2021. A second round of voting in French regional elections is being seen as a litmus test of whether the far right is gaining in electability ahead of the presidential election.

Mainstream candidates delivered a stinging setback to France’s far right in regional elections Sunday, thwarting its hopes of winning control of a region for the first time and slowing its momentum ahead of the presidential contest next year.

National Rally leader Marine Le Pen quickly conceded that the far-right, anti-immigration party failed to win any of mainland France’s 12 regions. She immediately looked forward to next year’s presidential vote, saying it “appears more than ever to be the election that allows for changes of politics and politicians.”

Ms. Le Pen complained that the organization of the two rounds of voting over successive weekends had been “disastrous and erratic.” Still, the National Rally’s showing in Sunday’s decisive runoffs suggested that the party remains anathema to many voters. It accrued no more than 20% of votes nationally, the Ifop polling agency calculated, trailing both the mainstream right and the combined showing of green and leftist candidates.

Most notably, the National Rally was roundly beaten in the southeast, the region that had been seen as its best chance of securing a breakthrough victory in the balloting for regional councils.

As in previous national and local elections, voters put political differences aside in coming together to prevent a National Rally breakthrough.

Mainstream candidates crowed that they had delivered painful blows to the far-right party previously named the National Front. No region changed camps, with the right keeping the seven it had previously and the left still in control of the other five, according to official results and polling agencies’ projections.

On the right, winning incumbent Xavier Bertrand crowed that the National Rally wasn’t only “stopped” in his region, the Hauts-de-France in the north, but “we made it retreat greatly.”

Another winner on the right, Laurent Wauquiez, said the far right had been left “no room to prosper” in his region, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.

Although focused on local issues, and marked by record-low turnout, the regional voting was scrutinized as a test of whether the National Rally is gaining in acceptability. Ms. Le Pen has spent a decade trying to cast off the extremist reputation that repelled many French voters in the party’s previous guise as the National Front. The party’s renewed failure to win a region suggested that Ms. Le Pen and her party remain unpalatable to many before the 2022 presidential vote.

But voter interest was also tepid, at best, with only one-third turning out. Among the few who cast ballots, some lamented that young voters, in particular, appeared to be squandering the last voting opportunity before the 2022 presidential poll.

“It’s shameful,” said Suzette Lefèvre, a retiree who voted in Saint-Quentin in northern France. “Our parents fought for us for this and people aren’t following suit.”

Philippe Corbonnois, another retiree who turned out in Saint-Quentin, opined that young people “maybe don’t believe in politics.”

A record-low turnout of 33% in the first round of voting on June 20 proved particularly damaging for the National Rally and Ms. Le Pen’s hopes of securing a regional breakthrough.

Polls had suggested Ms. Le Pen’s party had some momentum. But that wasn’t borne out at the ballot box. A major question in the runoff had been whether voters would band together to keep Ms. Le Pen’s party out of power as they did in the past, repulsed by her anti-immigration and anti-European Union populism and the racist, anti-Semitic image that clung to the National Front, which was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The party dominated the first round of the last regional elections in 2015 but also collapsed in the runoff as parties and voters joined together against it.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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