French far right seeks election victory in Provence

Marine Le Pen has urged French voters to make history on Sunday by giving her anti-immigration Rassemblement National party control of the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region in the south, in the last nationwide election before she stands against Emmanuel Macron in next year’s presidential vote. 

Her Provence candidate Thierry Mariani — who has courted controversy by backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and defending Russia’s seizure of Crimea — came out ahead in the regional election’s first round of voting a week ago and hopes to secure victory in the second. The RN has never won control of a French region, though it has succeeded in towns and cities in local elections.

“You can make history on Sunday. Vote!” Mariani said on Twitter. After a first round in which only a third of the French electorate went to the polls and RN voters in particular stayed away, Le Pen also urged her supporters to “mobilise like never before: don’t let the election be stolen from you”. 

But the extreme-right RN did worse than expected overall in the first round in France’s 13 main regions, and Mariani faces a united “republican front” in Provence that will try to keep him out of power after the main Green-left candidate withdrew and threw the support of his alliance behind the centre-right incumbent, Renaud Muselier. 

An Ifop-Fiducial opinion poll last week suggested Muselier would win a razor-thin victory by 51 per cent to 49 in the two-way contest. 

The clear winners in the first round were the established French parties of left and centre-right, the Socialists and Les Républicains. They were shattered by Macron’s unexpected presidential and legislative election victories four years ago but are now likely to keep control of most or all of the regions they already run, although regional powers are limited largely to transport policy and education.

The French Greens — Europe Écologie-Les Verts — have also performed strongly in recent elections, and hope under former Macron supporter Matthieu Orphelin and his leftwing allies to wrest control of the Pays de la Loire region in the west from the centre-right.

Macron’s La République en Marche, a centrist party created in 2016 to propel him to power the following year, did even worse than forecast in the first round, winning only a tenth of the votes cast and failing even to qualify for the second round in four regions. 

He will seek to revive the enfeebled party and is expected to announce a government reshuffle in the weeks ahead, according to senior officials. One said Macron and his advisers needed to learn the lessons of the first-round results. “It’s a real alarm bell and we should draw the consequences.”

On the centre-right, which has provided most French presidents in Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, spirits have been lifted by the strong showing of candidates in the regional elections so far. 

In the northern region of Hauts-de-France, Xavier Bertrand defied forecasts and crushed his RN rivals — he boasted of “smashing their jaws” — while Laurent Wauquiez in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the south-east and Valérie Pécresse in the Ile-de-France also came out ahead. 

Political analysts say that with each of the three regional leaders, and others besides, having presidential ambitions, the main risk for the centre-right is that the movement may fail to agree on a common candidate to challenge Macron and Le Pen next year. 

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