France is voting in the first round of regional elections that could see Marine Le Pen‘s far-right party make gains and step further into the political mainstream.
In Sunday’s election, new assemblies will be elected for mainland France’s 13 regions and 96 departments, with Le Pen‘s National Rally (RN) tipped to win at least one region for the first time in what would be a major coup.
Le Pen is not standing as a candidate, but she has been campaigning hard before presidential elections next year that surveys show could end up being a close race between her and the centrist president Emmanuel Macron.
Though far-right politicians preside over a handful of towns in France, running a region with a budget of billions of euros and powers over schools, transport and economic development would lend it the sort of legitimacy that Le Pen craves, analysts say.
“What would be great for her, and would spark some momentum in the pre-presidential campaign, would be if the National Rally won a region,” said Stephane Zumsteeg from the Ipsos polling firm.
The region most likely to tip is the south-eastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur – home to Marseille, Saint-Tropez and Cannes – where the RN is fronted by Thierry Mariani, a former minister who defected from the centre-right Republicans party.
The election will be held over two consecutive Sundays, with a second run-off vote on June 27 necessary unless parties win more than 50% in the first round.
Results in many regions will be driven by local dynamics and a high abstention rate, limiting how much they should be seen as indicators for the larger political picture in France, analysts say.
But the outcome will inevitably shape the narrative in the coming weeks, particularly with regard to the strength and electability of Le Pen, as well as the state of Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party .
A survey by the Ipsos and Sopra Steria groups last week showed RN candidates leading in six of the 13 mainland regions in the first round, meaning results on Sunday night might suggest sweeping gains for the party.
But because of anti-RN tactical voting, they could end up losing all of the run-off votes – as they did at the time of the last elections in 2015. A possible record abstention rate of up to 60% could also be a major factor.
“The more abstention goes up, in terms of the number of votes cast, the extreme ends of the political spectrum are the winners,” said Pierre Lefebure, a political scientist at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the left-leaning Jean-Jaures Foundation, believes the vote is likely to serve as another step in the normalisation of the once-fringe far right.
“You can see that it’s not so much that the ideas of the National Rally are more popular or are more accepted by French society,” he told AFP. “It’s that the party no longer scares people enough to spark a wave of opposition.”
The election could also result in gains for the green EELV party, which performed strongly in local elections last year.