France’s regional polls launch race for the presidency

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First came the shock, then the relief for France’s political establishment.

The country’s regional elections – usually a mid-term test of opinion, electing bodies with no legislative power – became the latest manifestation of the growth of the authoritarian and populist National Front (FN).

Despite stunning results in the first round, support for the party was not sufficient to allow it to win control of any of France’s regions.

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But a clear message was sent: the FN, led by Marine Le Pen (pictured), is not going away. Le Pen will be a major contender for the presidency of the Republic in 2017.

Background to the elections

France is currently simplifying its multiple layers of administration to increase clarity of purpose and improve efficiency. One measure, passed in January 2015, saw the number of administrative regions on the French mainland (the ‘Hexagon’) reduced to 13.

Among other responsibilities, the regions have a leading role in supporting local economic development. For instance, they distribute European funds, provide companies with financial assistance, help start-up businesses and support innovative projects.

The elections held on 6 and 13 December saw representatives elected for a six-year term.

The rise of the National Front

In the first round of voting on 6 December, the National Front (FN) topped the polls in six regions, winning almost 30 per cent of the vote.

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It was a shock, but not a massive one. The FN had performed well in recent elections (the European Parliament elections in 2014 and elections for France’s local administrations (départments) in March 2015). This election further reinforced the FN’s legitimacy as a leading political force in France.

But the shock galvanised France’s two main parties.

Between the first and the second rounds, the Socialist Party (PS) and the centre-right Republicans (Les Républicains, LR – led by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, pictured) adopted two opposing strategies to counter the FN’s growth.

The PS decided to withdraw its candidates in three regions where the FN had a high chance of winning; the Republicans kept its candidates as a sign of opposition to the Socialist government’s policies, and as a strategy to win over traditional Socialist voters and take regions previously held by the PS.

These strategies worked. In the second round of voting on 13 December, the FN failed to win any regions. The Socialists and their allies won five regions, and the Republicans, together with their supporters on the centre-right (the smaller UDI and MoDem parties), won seven.

Among these seven regions was the Île-de-France and Paris region, the most important region in political and economic terms, and one that had been governed by the Socialists for the past seventeen years.

Reshuffling the cards for 2017 presidential elections

With such an increase in support and votes in recent elections, the FN is now considered on an equal footing with the Socialists and the Republicans for the presidential elections in 2017.

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Marine Le Pen is in a strong position. She could become the ‘referee’ between the PS and LR candidates in the race to the Elysée Palace (pictured).

If she comes first or second in the first round, making it to the run-off, the election is likely to be, in effect, a one-round election. The second round vote – as in 2002, when Jacques Chirac easily beat Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, would be a vote against the FN and in favour of Le Pen fille‘s opponent, whether Socialist or Republican.

Political analysts believe that the 2017 presidential elections campaign started in earnest on 13 December. The PS is seen perceived as severely weakened and an Ipsos-Sopra Stéria poll suggests that only 39 per cent of French people want a left-wing party to govern the country (against 41 per cent for a right-leaning party).

On the right, the Republicans’ strategy between the two rounds of the regional elections has been criticised. This may leave the door open for other candidates, such as former prime minister Alain Juppé, to step in as the Republicans candidate in place of Sarkozy.

What is clear is that the race for the French presidency is now wide open.

Words  Camélia Assaoui and Jonathan Kemma (Burson-Marsteller i&e, Paris)
Images  (c) European Union, 2015; CC/Flickr fdecomite; CC/Flickr European People’s Party

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