Paris (Brussels Morning) Unaccustomed to making the headlines, this year’s regional and departmental election campaigns in France are nevertheless being closely watched by media and other observers, both for their “predictable unpredictability” and for the lack of a concrete debate among political powers at just ten months from the May 2022 presidential election. Scheduled for the 20th and 27th June, the double elections were initially planned for March this year – but have been twice delayed because of Covid-19.
Despite the return to quasi-normality with the reopening of leisure, cultural and sports events and the importance of the election as a popularity test for parties, opinion polls predict a low turnout, even below that of 2015. According to an Ifop survey just ten days before the first round, only 46% of registered voters intend to cast their vote, despite a tense and deeply polarising campaign in anticipation of a heated election year.
While voters are increasingly indifferent to the current debate, devoid of any concrete political positions, the weakening of the republican front leads to ever more radical positions, seen as a serious threat to French democracy and republican values.
Political temperature check ahead of the presidential poll
In total, 18 regional presidencies are at stake – 13 in metropolitan France and Corsica, and five more in overseas territories, including the assemblies of French Guyana and Martinique, and the departmental council of Mayotte. The regional councils, which are elected for 6 years, do not have legislative autonomy as in other countries, but they have devolved powers and decision-making authority as they manage large budgets on education, infrastructure and local train lines, economic and social development, regional planning, healthcare, as well as the vital tourism industry.
Macron’s La Republique En Marche (LREM) party, which he founded shortly before the presidential election of 2017, is yet to contest a regional election, but has not gained much ground in previous municipal elections. Marine Le Pen’s RN didn’t win any regional presidencies in the 2015 ballot, the 13 continental regions being claimed by either the Socialist Party (PS) or the conservative right-wing Les Republicains (LR). But both Macron and LePen now seek to make considerable gains in the last electoral test before what is expected to be a duel between the two for the presidency.
While some incumbent presidents in key regions are well-known politicians that are expected to be re-elected, the 10% threshold to get to the second round could also make for the unusual alliances of a blocking vote – a “republican front” against Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). This seems to be the majority’s strategy in some regions where it seeks to gain a kingmaker role in the second round, as opposed to other cases where it has thrown high profile ministers into the battle in order to promote the president’s campaign.
In the latest opinion polls the picture is pretty much unchanged, with Marine Le Pen steady at 28% in the first round against 25% for Emmanuel Macron who keeps his narrow lead over Le Pen for the second round – 53% against 47% according to Harris Interactive. In June, Macron’s popularity rose to 40%, well beyond his predecessors at the same time (30% for Nicolas Sarkozy and 14% for Francois Hollande respectively), while Prime Minister Jean Castex was steady at 38%. Both are coming out of this long crisis period rather well, the Ifop survey notes.
However, this republican front is currently weakened, leading to the unpredictability of the imminent ballot. On the one hand, by whitewashing the image of her party, Marine Le Pen has managed to attract a considerable portion of the traditional right-wing LR base. As she emerged as the main opponent of Emmanuel Macron, LR has struggled to rebuild its position among the French electorate, along with a PS weakened by the initial centrist posture of the president himself. As Macron increasingly led from the right, the whole political spectrum was pushed into more polarising positions, leading to the deterioration of the public debate and the lack of any serious political narrative.
“There is no more structured public debate and there is no longer any structuring society project” observes Sciences Po lecturer David Djaïz. “In this context, politicians, intellectuals or journalists are condemned to constantly bounce back on the news of the day, and it goes all over the place. We live in a post-Trumpist atmosphere” he told Le Monde.
The current campaign has been marked by a rise of radical narratives and even physical violence, with Macron being slapped in the face by a man shouting royalist slogans during a campaign visit. The incident was denounced by all political factions as the symptom of a poisonous atmosphere and a threat to French democracy.
A few days beforehand, leftist presidential candidate and leader of the France Insoumise party Jean-Luc Melenchon had caused an outcry by predicting that “in the last weeks of the presidential campaign, we’ll have a serious incident or a murder”, which he claimed would be orchestrated specifically to manipulate the electorate towards re-electing Macron. This further added to a coarsened dialogue, fueled by ultra-conservative, anti-immigration figures such as controversial commentator Eric Zemmour, who is rumoured to be standing as a candidate for the presidency.
LREM MP Aurore Bergé noted: “From the moment the weakened political parties no longer embody any ideology, there are no more borders, no landmarks. Therefore, a number of voters are tempted to turn to those who carry a clear, readable, unambiguous message, who say who they are. Unfortunately, it is RN that benefits”.
This is particularly obvious in regions where questions of (in)security weigh heavily on voters’ intentions. In the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) region, home to the second largest city, Marseille, an Ipsos poll showed that crime is the main worry for over 50% of those asked, followed by immigration and the Covid-19 crisis. The RN candidate Thierry Mariani looks set to take the lead at the first tour and win at the second, whatever the scenario opposing him, and despite the favourable opinion towards his main LR rival, incumbent Renaud Muselier, who could also be supported by LREM.
Elsewhere, such as the northern regions of Ile-de-France (Paris), Hauts de France (Lille), Grand Est (Strasbourg), Normandy, and central Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes (Lyon), polls show that voters tend to support well-known figures of the LR party, pointing towards a campaign of personalities instead of concrete political answers to crucial questions such as the environment, healthcare, education and culture.
Questions around ecology, green energy, and sustainability, among the main narratives of the left and greens, are lost in this polarised climate while last minute efforts to unite the left wing cause more uncertainty over what stance every party will opt for after the first round. In the meantime, a “March for liberties and against the far-right” was organised in more than 140 French cities last Saturday with over 150,000 participants. Organised by unions, militants and associations of ecologists, activists, and the whole spectrum of leftist parties, it denounced the phenomena of “liberticide” legislation and what it considered a witch hunt against democratic principles, such as the recent controversy on “Islamo-leftism”, and hoped to motivate and unite against the rise of the RN. “This is the starting point, I hope, of a mobilisation not only against far right organisations, but against far right ideas” said the former presidential candidate Benoit Hamon at the beginning of the Paris demonstration.