Round one: record low turnout muddies water in French regional election

By Mark Swift


The first round of French regional elections was characterised by record low voter turnout on Sunday. The results indicate a disgruntled, disengaged electorate, mixed sway for the far-right, and the waning of Macron’s centrists in favour of the centre-right Les Républicains.

Record lows

The most striking message of the first round of voting came from the incredibly high level of abstentions. With a turnout of only 34%, some 30 million people felt uncompelled to reach the poles. France emerged from months of pandemic curfews on the same day, and fatigue and disaffection seem to be dominating attitudes. Turnout for the 2015 regional elections was 49%.

“A defeat for all of us” as “abstention is a message,” said Gerald Darmanin, the French interior minister — “The French people are telling politicians they do not trust them.”

Whether or not this is true, the turnout certainly puts any other attempts to draw conclusion on shaky ground. By the second round of voting on Sunday 27th, the numbers might have shifted dramatically, making the overall winners anyone’s guess.

At present, incumbent Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche won 10.9% of votes, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) took 19.1%, and Les Républicains find themselves in front with 29.3% of the vote.

Shifting polarities

Hopes were extremely high among the ranks of the far-right, which seeks to use the regional elections as a beachhead for next year’s presidential runoff.

Le Pen claimed the voter turnout was “a civic disaster that deformed the electoral reality of the country, and produces a misleading vision of the current political forces.”

That is perhaps an optimistic reading of the circumstances.

RN claimed only 1 region this outing, a stark fall from the 6 out of 13 regions attained in the first round of regional elections in 2015.

Its candidate in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Thierry Mariani, took fractionally more than his LR rival, Renaud Muselier, in what can only be seen as a disappointing result for the nationalists, who were expecting a clear win.

All the same, RN still has a chance at taking a region outright in a historic first. The socialist candidate for the region withdrew from the second round, paving the way for a head-to-head between the centre-right and far-right candidates.

Up until now, despite the far-right’s growing bid for legitimacy, other political camps have generally coordinated in second round voting to keep it from securing a stronghold.

A victory would solidify Le Pen’s long fight to paint the French far-right as a palatable choice for voters. Should RN achieve the startling feat of toppling a region, its members will have a double-edged opportunity to demonstrate governance capabilities that up to now remain untested.

If first round voting is to be taken seriously, Macron’s La République en Marche has suffered serious setbacks in the lead up to next year’s presidential election. At best, the party came in at 3rd or 4th place in most regions.

This could spell the end of the centrist experiment, with the third way ceding ground to the traditional centre-right — if last Sunday’s vote remains valid.

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