Just ten months before the 2022 presidential election, French people head to the polls this Sunday to elect their regional and departmental councillors.
The vote was initially scheduled to take place in March but was postponed due to COVID-19.
The elections, which will be the last opportunity for French people to vote before the presidential race in April 2022, are a key test for President Emmanuel Macron and his rivals.
Macron's centrist party La République en Marche (LREM) faces the challenge of starting from scratch since it did not exist when the last regional vote was held six years ago. Opinion polls predict the ruling party's candidates will have a hard time winning regional presidencies' seats.
Conversely, the centre-left Socialist and conservative Les Républicains (LR) parties, which had dominated French politics until their 2017 defeats, still remain strong at the regional level. Each currently holds the presidencies of five regional councils, out of a total of 18.
According to recent opinion polls, the far-right party National Rally is in a position to win the presidency of at least one region, which would be a first in French history. Many in France actually see the regional vote as a stepping stone to the Elysée Palace for party leader Marine Le Pen, who lost the 2017 presidential election to Macron.
In previous elections, a so-called "republican front" was formed by mainstream parties at the second round to stop the far-right from winning.
How much will the republican front hold in these regional and departmental elections and what will it mean for 2022?
From the possible rise of the far-right to testing the strategies of mainstream parties ahead of 2022, here is why this vote matters more than you think.
How many regions can the far-right win?
Opinion polls indicate that the National Rally is leading in six regions in the first round with chances of winning the runoff in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and Centre-Val de Loire.
In the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, far-right candidate Thierry Mariani is in a strong position to win the second round "under all scenarios," according to two recent opinion surveys conducted by IFOP-Fiducial and IPSOS Sopra Steria.
Even if left-wing parties withdrew their candidates in the runoff under the so-called Republican front, polls indicate that incumbent Renaud Muselier (LR) would only get 49% of the votes, compared to 51% for Mariani.
The prospect of the far-right governing regions is sending chills to the government. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin even claimed that such wins would stamp the regions with a "satanic mark".
Christian Le Bart, a professor of political science in Sciences Po Rennes, told Euronews that National Rally wins in one or more French regions would "further anchor this party in the French political landscape". The expert noted that the far-right party already governed a number of French cities and towns -- including Perpignan or Fréjus -- and had taken part in regional executives before.
"It would also feed into the 2022 presidential campaign by validating the line of Marine Le Pen and giving the impression that she is on the right track to ascend to power," Le Bart said.
Le Pen has spent years working on "normalising" her party's image. She vowed to get rid of extremist elements who gravitated around her father’s National Front party, which she renamed.
The party did not respond to Euronews' interview request.
"First and foremost, I think that it would be very bad news for the region itself," MP Roland Lescure of Macron's LREM party told Euronews.
"Any town or city that's been governed by the National Rally, we've seen when it leads to: fewer subsidies to any creative or cultural content that doesn't fit their view of the world, not great governance, sometimes issues with budget management."
"It would be probably a shock if one or two regions were held by the National Rally and that's why we're going to do everything we can to avoid it," Lescure added.
Is it the end of the 'republican front'?
In the last regional election of 2015, the notion of a "republican front" against the far-right received wide support across mainstream parties, which did not hesitate to withdraw their candidates from the runoff to block National Rally wins.
This year, however, such alliances should not be taken for granted.
One issue, Le Bart noted, is that "the central leaderships of parties are very weakened and they are no longer able to influence local political actors".
In this context, the expert explained, "the balance of power will be gauged locally and each candidate will proceed according to their own sensitivity and electoral interest, knowing that threats of sanction or exclusion do not carry much weight anymore".
Few parties have clearly announced that they would withdraw their lists after the first round in regions where the National Rally is in a position to win.
"Our line has always been clear: no alliances," said LR leader Christian Jacob.
The Socialist party is due to make a decision at its National Bureau on Friday. It did not respond to Euronews' request for an interview.
The Republican front "does not prevent the far right from progressing," Green MEP Yannick Jadot told AFP. But "on the evening of the first round, we will do whatever it takes", including "withdrawing if there is a real risk" for the far-right to win, he added.
Meanwhile, far-left party Untamed France called the republican front a "completely ineffective injunction". "People are fed up with it," said MP Adrien Quatennens.
Lescure told Euronews the republican front "could take many forms and shapes."
"We have to make sure that it doesn't die and therefore maybe to get it reborn again in a different form and shape," the lawmaker and LREM spokesman said.
Rather than merely dropping their lists and letting the other mainstream party candidates win on their own, the lawmaker said another option was to "merge the two or three republican lists still in the race so that you can still have a republican front while preserving the diversity of opinions in the assembly once it gets elected."
Why is Macron's party trailing in opinion polls?
The ruling party is unlikely to win a single region, according to opinion polls.
"LREM's problem has always been its difficulty to exist beyond the figure of the president. We are witnessing this paradox of a head of state which, on a personal level, has much higher popularity ratings than those of his predecessors at the same point of their mandate, but this does not reflect on his political party," Le Bart told Euronews.
"It's a five-year-old party. We didn't have by definition elected officials on the ground," Lescure said. "So we have to keep on grinding, keep on working to make sure that we improve and that we grow up roots in the country and that's a big challenge."
In this context, party officials are downplaying the national significance of the vote.
"I don't think it will be a lesson in one way or another for the presidential election. We are a year away from that election and a lot can happen between now and then. I certainly hope the president is going to be a candidate again so he gets reelected," Lescure told Euronews.
But according to Le Bart, "all the conditions are met for this vote to be read as being in direct link with the presidential election, that is to say, a national election." Even Macron's voters will have in mind that voting for LREM candidates regionally is a way of validating his exercise of power nationally, the expert noted.
What's in these elections for the other parties?
Despite their weakened positions at the national level, both the Socialists and LR parties may be able to hold on to regions they have governed for years.
"We know that for elections of this type, there is an incumbency bonus or at any rate, a bonus for notoriety and political experience," Le Bart noted.
The election will also play a significant role in determining the "political casting" for these parties at the presidential election, the expert told Euronews.
Xavier Bertrand, who is leading LR's lists in the northern Hauts de France region, said he would not run for president if he wasn't re-elected on June 27. The performance of Valérie Pécresse, the incumbent head of the Ile-de-France region which includes Paris and its suburbs, will also be closely watched by LR.
For the Green party, the challenge will be to confirm their massive gains at municipal elections last year.
Large cities including Lyon or Bordeaux are now governed by green mayors. "If the ecologists were able to conquer a region, thanks to an alliance for instance, this would be very significant," said Le Bart, noting that the "option did not seem to emerge thus far, but everything is possible".
Far-left party Untamed France is running lists led by its own candidates in only four regions, while favouring alliances with other left-wing parties in others.
How will abstention play out?
French regional elections tend to have a low turnout, and opinion polls predict it will be particularly low this Sunday.
54% of registered voters intend to abstain from the first round compared to 49.91% in 2015, according to a recent IFOP poll.
Turnout will be a key factor in shaping the outcome of this election.
"We know that when voter turnout is low, it is often those in power who benefit because they have a captive electorate, with more or less political patronage," said Le Bart.
Earlier this week, Jordan Bardella, the National Rally's candidate in Ile-de-France, told supporters: "We will win my friends, we will win if and only if we succeed in defeating a fearsome enemy: abstention."
How much power do French regions have?
Compared to the German Länders or the Spanish autonomous communities, French regions have limited competencies, Le Bart told Euronews.
Those include economic development, country planning, training, and public transports.
Yet French regions manage a significant budget and play an important role on the European level.
"A lot of European funds go directly to the regions in France," Lescure noted, including the majority of the €40 billion slated for the country under the pandemic recovery plan known as Next Generation EU.
From this perspective, having regions run by an anti-European party like the National Rally would be a "disaster," the lawmaker said.
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