French regional elections 2021: why Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen suffered setbacks

The resilience of the Socialists and conservatives on a regional level suggests a growing fracture between national and local politics.

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Voters in all of France’s 18 regions went to the polls this past weekend, in the first round of regional elections ahead of a second round on Sunday 27 June. The result, which was marked by a record low turnout of just 33 per cent, saw Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally party underperform on polls. Support instead rallied to incumbent administrations led by the traditionally dominant parties of the centre-right and centre-left, shunning both Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron. 
 
Pre-vote polling suggested that the National Rally might come ahead in up to six regions. In the event, it led in just the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, under the leadership of Thierry Mariani, a former minister for Nicolas Sarkozy who defected to Le Pen’s party in 2019. In other regions, such as the northern Hauts-de-France, which includes the cities of Lille and Dunkirk, voters flocked to the centre-right, defying the hopes of Le Pen’s party, which typically performs well in rural and former industrial regions. The party gained about 18 per cent nationally, around 9 points down on the 2015 regional elections.

Disappointment for Macron and Le Pen
2021 French regional election first round results

Macron’s ruling En Marche party performed dismally. It scored around 10 per cent nationally, in keeping with the post-2017 presidential election trend of Macronist candidates for local election generally failing to match the president’s ability to win nationwide votes. It had been hoping to be able to act as kingmaker in some regions, though that now looks unlikely.
 
By contrast, voters in regions run by the mainstream parties which have traditionally dominated French politics, the conservative Republicans and centre-left Socialists, largely backed the incumbent administrations of their regions. In Île-de-France, the most populous region which takes in the greater Paris area, the conservative leader Valérie Pécresse easily led the first round. Her party colleagues led in five other regions.
 
Perhaps the most surprising aspect to the election result is the resilience of the Socialist Party (PS). The Socialists were virtually decimated at the national level in 2017, their candidate Benoît Hamon winning just 6 per cent of the vote and the parliamentary faction reduced to a rump of 31 seats. The PS has been written off as a failure, yet the resilience of the party at the regional level – it led the first round vote in five regions – will reassure party figures about how plausible a comeback might be.
 
In advance of the second round of the elections, the PS is likely to agree several joint lists with other parties of the left, such as the Greens and Communists, further boosting its prospects. 
 
As John Litchfield writes, French politics now appear divided between the domination of Le Pen and Macron at the national level and the old political parties of the centre-right and centre-left at a local level. Neither Macron nor Le Pen seems able to make inroads into sub-national institutions to enough of a degree to make much of an impact, while the parties that dominate regional assemblies and mayoralties have little effect on national politics.
 
It is slightly too early to dismiss the possibility of the RN performing well in the second round. Le Pen has blamed her party’s underperformance on her voters failing to turn out, possibly because some may have felt that the RN was on track to win convincingly.
 
According to Ifop, a pollster, non-voters were most likely to back either Le Pen or far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. If Le Pen’s voters take stock of her relatively poor performance in the first round and decide to turn out for the second, her party could still come out of these elections with a good result, and perhaps control of its first-ever region. Conversely, some voters for mainstream parties, reassured by their stronger-than-expected results against Le Pen, might not feel the same sense of urgency as when it seemed she was on course to win a third of French regions.
 
But if the general trend of incumbent administrations being re-elected holds next weekend too, then the question for the conservatives and Socialists will be whether they can build on their strong regional performances in advance of next year’s presidential elections, or whether the nationwide debate will continue to be dominated by Macron and Le Pen. 

[See also: How French conservatives are turning toward Marine Le Pen]

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

He co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.

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