4 takeaways from French local elections

PARIS — Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the frontrunners for next year’s French presidential vote, saw their parties defeated in dramatic fashion Sunday evening, with both failing to gain control of a single region in the second round of local elections.

The failure of the disruptors to disrupt on Sunday, when the French voted in run-off ballots for 13 regional councils across metropolitan France and for 94 départements after a first round last weekend, allowed their conservative Les Républicains (LR) rivals to emerge in fighting form ahead of the 2022 race.

Here are four takeaways from the regional elections.

1. Marine Le Pen battered

Le Pen, whose National Rally (RN) party suffered a series of crushing defeats in the first round of the vote, directed all her run-off hopes into the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Her candidate Thierry Mariani — an LR defector — was polling neck-and-neck with a former friend from his old party, incumbent Renaud Muselier. In the end, Mariani lost to Muselier, only managing 42.7 percent of the vote.

Le Pen’s allies in other regions also fell to candidates from the mainstream left or right, often losing ground from the last regional elections, in 2015.

The abysmal turnout for the regional election — only a third of French adults bothered to vote on Sunday — instead benefited the 13 Socialist and conservative incumbents running for the regional councils, with all of them winning their races.

Speaking after the results became apparent, Le Pen said the elections revealed a “deep crisis of local democracy.” She added that “the presidential [ballot] appeared more than ever as the election to help change politics.”

RN’s failure to win any regions will put a dampener on Le Pen’s presidential bid next year — a win would have given the far right the chance to prove it can govern, not just criticize from the sidelines.

But Le Pen also faces a deeper challenge: Since taking over the leadership of her father’s party, she has worked to make it more mainstream in order to win elections. That strategy now appears to be deeply flawed.

Next weekend, RN holds its annual conference in the town of Perpignan — giving Le Pen and her party the opportunity to ponder past mistakes and do some soul-searching.

2. Macron’s reelection bid under threat

While it was a terrible night for Le Pen, it was also a bad one for the current president. Macron did his best not to get involved in the regional elections, with no press conferences or rallying speeches after his La République En Marche (LREM) failed spectacularly in the first round, managing just 11 percent of the vote.

On the surface, there’s no need for Macron to panic. Turnout was very low and local elections are often dominated by local issues, and polls show that Macron and Le Pen remain the two favorites for the upcoming presidential election. But the poor performance of the president’s party, which has been unable to gain traction on the local level, is bound to be ringing alarm bells. And while a government reshuffle appears to be off the cards, there will be pressure to react in some way to the results.

3. The conservatives get their groove back

Repeatedly written off as has-beens in the wake of Macron’s political onslaught, France’s big beasts appear to have gotten their groove back — holding their regional seats might just give Les Républicains the extra oomph they needed to get battle-ready ahead of the big race next year.

Two-time former Minister Xavier Bertrand got 52.37 percent of the vote on Sunday — double that of his challenger from the National Rally in the Hauts-de-France. The president of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, LR’s Laurent Wauquiez, and the president of the greater Paris region, conservative Valérie Pécresse, also kept their seats with comfortable margins.

All three are possible rivals to Macron, and will hope to use their victories as springboards to launch their bids for the Elysée. Bertrand, for one, had already announced his candidacy for the presidential election, and delivered a victory speech on Sunday evening that sounded just like a campaign pitch: The results had given him “the strength to go and meet the French people,” Bertrand said.

Pécresse also hinted at ambitions for next year, telling supporters: “More than ever, I want to continue and increase the fight for my beliefs and for the values of the Republic with all my strength.”

So what happens next?

The problem is LR is hopelessly split over whether to hold primaries or let grandees choose the party’s presidential candidate. The results of the regional elections, which have strengthened several would-be rivals, will not help with that choice.

4. A crowded scene

As a snapshot of France, the regional elections show a political scene that is both crowded and divided.

The emergence of Macron’s LREM, the strength of the National Rally and the disunity on the left means there has never been more choice for the electorate. In the greater Paris region, voters had four leftwing candidates to choose from, all pitching a mix of green and welfare proposals.

In seven regions, four lists of candidates made it to the runoffs; in two regions — Brittany and Nouvelle-Aquitaine — there were five different parties to choose from. Tactical voting in these elections proved a nightmare.

The French are used to choosing between two, maybe three parties in runoffs, and with greater choice comes greater uncertainty. Incumbent presidents were often clear favorites, but the race was close for everybody else.

Looking ahead to the presidential election, the splitting of the vote could upset predictions.

And in French presidential elections, accidents do happen: In 2002, the leftwing vote was split but pollsters and pundits all expected Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin to make it through to the second round. Instead, it was Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who went up against the eventual winner, Jacques Chirac.

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