French far-right's Le Pen fails to win breakthrough in abstention-hit vote
The French far right of Marine Le Pen failed to win any region while the centrist ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron suffered another poll drubbing in the second round of regional elections Sunday, again marked by a woeful turnout.
In a confirmation of trends set in the June 20 first round, partial results showed the National Rally (RN) of Le Pen was thwarted in its main ambition of winning the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) region that includes Marseille and Nice.
Emmanuel Macron's ruling party could not even break into double figures nationwide let alone win any region, in a jolt as the president begins to turn his sights on re-election in 2022.
Victory in the Mediterranean region would have given Le Pen control of one of France's 13 mainland regions for the first time and added impetus to her challenge to Macron in the presidential elections.
"This evening we have not won any region," said a disappointed Le Pen, blaming "unnatural alliances" between foes and saying that "mobilisation is the key" to victories in the future.
But the outcome marks a boost for the traditional right-wing The Republicans as well as the Socialist Party, who were squeezed after the centrist Macron surged into power in 2017 with his brand-new Republic on the Move (LREM) party.
While analysts warn against extrapolating too much from regional elections, they underline that it is not a forgone conclusion that the 2022 presidential race will be a straight Macron-Le Pen duel.
There was cross-party concern over the turnout for last week's polls and the second round marked barely any improvement, with over 66 percent of the electorate not casting their votes, according to an estimate by Ifop Fiducial.
No RN breakthrough
One of the most closely watched races on Sunday was whether the RN candidate Thierry Mariani could defeat his right-wing rival Renaud Muselier in the PACA region.
Gaining control of a region for the first time would have been a huge boost for Le Pen as she seeks to convince voters that the RN -- which she has rebranded since taking over from her firebrand father Jean-Marie Le Pen -- is a serious party of power.
But Muselier was on course to defeat Mariani by a margin of around 10 percent, according to a count of three-quarters of the vote.
Muselier was helped by the withdrawal of left-wing candidates, an example of the "Republican Front" seen in past presidential elections to block the far-right.
"The logic of unity" was the winner, Muselier said, noting that many had voted for him in spite of personal political allegiances to defeat the RN.
Critics have accused Mariani of being an admirer of authoritarians such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
The RN also came up short in the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris. Its 25-year-old rising star Jordan Bardella failed to trouble right-wing incumbent Valerie Pecresse, who held off a coalition of the left and greens.
"The RN failed," said the left-wing Liberation daily in the headline of its Monday edition, adding Le Pen had emerged "weakened" from elections where she hoped to win several regions.
Right-wing heavyweight Xavier Bertrand meanwhile held onto the northeastern Hauts-de-France, cementing his credibility as a 2022 presidential challenger from the traditional right.
"This result gives me the strength to go out and meet all the French," said Bertrand in reference to his upcoming presidential campaign.
The results confirmed the failure of Macron's LREM to put down local and regional roots despite controlling the presidency and lower house of parliament.
The Ifop projection said the LREM would garner just seven percent of the votes nationwide, despite several ministers standing and Macron himself embarking on a nationwide tour that saw him at one point slapped by a member of the public.
The LREM's chief Stanislas Guerini admitted the elections marked a "disappointment for the presidential majority".
The results leave the right in charge of seven regions, the left with five and Corsican nationalists in office on the Mediterranean island.
"Revenge for the parties of the 'ancient world'" commented Le Monde daily, while noting the success was "tarnished by a record abstention".
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