Gains for the far right in French regional polls

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Paris (AFP)

France goes to the polls on Sunday for the first round of regional elections, which could see Marine Le Pen’s far-right party progress and become more integrated into the political mainstream.

The election will see new assemblies elected for the 13 regions and 96 departments of mainland France, with Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) likely to win at least one region for the first time in what would be a major coup .

Le Pen is not running as a candidate, but she campaigned ahead of next year’s presidential elections, which polls have shown could end up being a close race between her and centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

“What would be good for her (Le Pen), and give a boost to the pre-presidential campaign, would be if the National Rally won a region,” Stéphane Zumsteeg of the Ipsos polling firm told AFP.

Although far-right politicians preside over a handful of cities, running a region with a budget of billions of euros and powers over schools, transport and economic development would give it the kind of legitimacy Le Pen aspires to, according to analysts.

Most likely to switch is the southeast of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, where the RN is led by Thierry Mariani, a former minister who defected from the center-right Les Républicains party in 2019.

Voting will take place on two consecutive Sundays, with a second round of voting on June 27 required unless parties get more than 50 percent in the first round.

– Prediction problems –

Analysts caution against over-extrapolating from the results which, in many cases, will be driven by local dynamics and a high abstention rate, limiting to what extent they should be viewed as indicators of the more political situation. large in France.

But the outcome will inevitably shape the narrative in the weeks to come, especially when it comes to Le Pen’s strength and eligibility, as well as the state of Macron’s weakened Republic en Marche (LREM) party.

“These elections are never good for the party in power. We always have it in the neck,” a minister told AFP last month.

Predictions are difficult due to the two-stage electoral system and the impact of tactical voting, which typically sees mainstream parties banding together to keep the far right out of power.

A survey conducted last week by the Ipsos and Sopra Steria groups showed RN candidates leading in six of the 13 mainland regions in the first round, meaning Sunday night’s results could suggest overwhelming party dominance.

But because of the tactical anti-RN vote, they could end up losing all the second-round votes, as they did in the last election in 2015.

A possible record abstention rate of up to 60 percent is also considered a major factor.

“The more abstention increases, in terms of the number of votes cast, the ends of the political spectrum are the winners”, Pierre Lefébure, political scientist at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris.

“Especially the RN, which has a very committed electorate who ignited campaign material that puts the face of Marine Le Pen everywhere one year from the presidential election,” he added.

Antoine Bristielle, public opinion expert at the Left Jean-Jaurès Foundation, believes that the vote will probably constitute a new step in the normalization of the once marginal far right.

“We see that it is not so much that the ideas of the National Rally are more popular or more accepted by French society,” he told AFP. “It’s because the party no longer scares people enough to trigger a wave of opposition.”

Voters have largely ignored a string of scandals that have enveloped at least half a dozen RN candidates over their past racist or anti-Semitic comments, or criminal records.

The vote is also seen as critical for center-right presidential candidates Xavier Bertrand, head of the Haute-France region, and Valérie Pécresse, who heads the Paris region, both candidates for re-election.

The election could also bring gains for the green party EELV, which performed well in local elections last year. Polling stations open at 06:00 GMT.

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