Setback for French presidential race favourites after regional losses

The front-runners for next year’s French presidential race are being called on to explain why voters should back them after their parties failed to meet expectations in regional elections that wrapped up this weekend.

With the Interior Ministry reporting final results from the two-stage election, French President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party and the National Rally (RN) of far-right perennial candidate Marine Le Pen fell well short of expectations.

The RN failed to make any wins. According to media reports, a centrist candidate in Guadeloupe with ties to LREM was leading. But that left the victories in all the other regions to politicians from the traditional parties of the left and right.

On one level, that might look like a bigger problem for Le Pen, whose RN went into the regional elections talking up its chances of claiming a leadership role in one district. However, even though there were low expectations for LREM (La Republique en Marche, or The Republic on the Move), the poor turnout shows how the national party has weak local roots.

Le Pen will have to face her party at a conference in a week to explain the path ahead, say commentators. Questions might come about her strategy of abandoning some of the party’s more radical former policies: She no longer insists that the RN needs to pull out of the eurozone, for example.

Nonetheless, Le Pen came out of the loss swinging, arguing that the 2022 elections offer France, more than ever, a chance for political change.

There will also be pressure on Macron to lay out his direction. Government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said on Monday that he will make an address next month to deliver the strategy for the rest of his term in office.

“Our country is at a turning point,” Attal said.

But Macron allies agreed that the results hinted at work that needs to be done.

“This is a slap in the face for democracy and for our political parties,” said Macron ally and former interior minister Christophe Castaner, noting that only a third of voters even bothered to come out for the polls, an historic low.

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“We are naturally taking this situation very seriously,” said Prime Minister Jean Castex during a virtual French-German parliamentary meeting. “We are engaged so that French democracy can function in the best way possible.”

Attal had already said the results were a “disappointment.”

Both the RN and Macron’s centrist LREM instead had to make way for the centre-right Republicans. In Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur – the party that RN had most hoped to win – the RN candidate got 42.7 per cent, while victory went to the Republicans’ Renaud Muselier, who got 57.3 per cent.

Xavier Bertrand, a Republican set to retain his seat as head of the Hauts-de-France region – and who has expressed interest in running for the presidency – said the regional elections have given him a boost.

“These results give me the strength to reach out to all French people,” he said, as final results showed him with 52.4 per cent of the vote in his district.


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