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June 14, 2021

Europe

FRANCE: What the regional elections mean for next year’s presidential contest

BY Antonio Barroso

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( 4 mins)
  • The ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) party’s likely poor performance in the 20 and 27 June regional and departmental polls should not be seen as a bellwether of next year’s presidential election.
  • A potential victory of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) in one or more regions would generate some media frenzy but would be unlikely to make a substantial difference for the 2022 presidential contest.
  • The center-right will probably not solve its internal quarrels over choosing a presidential candidate until the fall, although a poor result in the regional elections could speed up decision-making on the matter.

The two-round elections taking place over the next two Sundays concern the choice of the members of 12 regional and 95 departmental assemblies (plus those of the assemblies of Guadeloupe, Reunion, French Guiana, Martinique, and Corsica). According to opinion polls, the ruling LREM party of President Emmanuel Macron is expected to do quite poorly, in line with the bad results obtained in last year’s local elections.

However, LREM’s performance should not be taken as an indication of Macron’s chances at next year’s presidential election. Incumbents tend to do well in this type of vote, making it very difficult for new parties such as LREM to make electoral inroads. To be sure, LREM’s failure to hold regional power creates doubts about the long-term sustainability of Macron’s political project. But the individualistic nature of the presidential election means Macron can win it without his party having strong local and regional roots.

Pricing Le Pen in

Rather than focusing on LREM’s fortunes, the main thing to watch is the performance of Marine Le Pen’s RN. Like in the 2015 regional elections, the far-right party is given as the winner of the first-round vote in six regions by opinion polls, but the dynamics between the two rounds are key. Parties have traditionally formed alliances or withdrawn ahead of the runoff to facilitate a victory of the more moderate party against the RN. However, such a consensus has eroded in recent times, and parties from the left to the right of the political spectrum have provided this time little clarity on what they will do between the two rounds.

Looking at opinion polls, the RN is currently in a strong position to win the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, even if the left withdraws its candidate to favor the center-right incumbent. The far-right party lists in the Centre-Val de Loire and the Bourgogne-Franche-Comte are also given as potential winners in the second round of the vote, but other parties’ alliances could more easily leave the RN out of power. Turnout will be an important factor, as surveys show RN voters are especially motivated to show up at the polls, which could benefit Le Pen’s party in the absence of a strong mobilization of the centrist electorate.

Even if the RN might end up doing worse than in the 2015 elections on the aggregate, a potential victory of the far-right party in one or more regions would likely generate considerable media frenzy. Moreover, Le Pen would use the victory to claim that the RN is credibly ready to hold power. However, such an outcome would be unlikely to make a big difference for the presidential contest in 2022. Opinion polls are already factoring in higher support for Le Pen in next year’s vote on the back of Macron’s lower popularity compared to 2017 and the increase in the electorate’s attention to security issues. At this stage, all polls point at a second-round contest between Macron and Le Pen in 2022, with the incumbent president seen defeating the far-right politician by around six percentage points.

Center-right still divided

The other signpost to monitor is the performance of key center-right figures such as Xavier Bertrand, Valerie Pecresse, or Laurant Wauquiez, all of whom have signaled their willingness to run in the presidential election. At this stage, it looks like the three politicians will obtain re-election in their respective regions, which means they will continue pushing to be designated as the leading candidate of the center-right.

The president of The Republicans (LR) recently announced that the party would survey 15,000 right-wing voters to gauge who is the center-right figure with the best electoral chances in 2022. The exercise should lead to the final selection of a candidate by the fall, although an unexpectedly poor performance of LR in the regional elections might speed up the process. In any case, Bertrand has repeated that he will run in the election regardless of what LR decides. With the center-right still divided, the emergence of a candidate that could challenge the Macron-Le Pen duopoly in 2022 remains improbable at this stage.

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