France began voting in the second round of regional elections on Sunday after a first round that resulted in a drubbing for President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party, disappointment for Marine Le Pen’s far right and a record low turnout.
For some observers, the outcome of the 20 June first round raised doubts over whether the 2022 presidential election would come down to a duel between Macron and Le Pen in a runoff long seen as the most likely scenario.
The first-round results were a boost for the traditional rightwing Les Républicains as well as the Socialist party, who have been squeezed after the centrist Macron surged into power in 2017 with his new La République En Marche (LREM) party.
Analysts warn against too much extrapolation on to a nationwide scale from the results of the regional elections, which choose the heads of France’s 13 mainland regions, from Brittany in the north-west to the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region in the south-east.
But there was cross-party concern over the turnout for last week’s polls, which were shunned by 66.72% of voters – a record in modern France.
“What we are seeing is the culmination of a disconnection between voters and the political class,” said Jessica Sainty, a politics lecturer at Avignon University, while acknowledging the Covid-19 crisis also played a role in the high abstention rate.
The woeful turnout prompted a debate over how to improve participation, with several figures including the government spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, suggesting electronic voting could help in future.
According to a poll published on Thursday, just 36% of voters plan to cast their ballots on Sunday. “France is sulking,” Le Parisien newspaper said.
The first-round results put Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) ahead in just one region, PACA, a major disappointment after polls showed a possible breakthrough in several areas.
One of the most closely watched races on Sunday will be whether the RN candidate Thierry Mariani can defeat his rightwing rival Renaud Muselier in the region.
Gaining control of a region for the first time would be a huge boost for Le Pen as she seeks to convince voters that the RN – which she has reformed and rebranded since taking over from her firebrand father, Jean-Marie – is a serious party of power.
Muselier could be helped by the withdrawal of leftwing candidates in a repeat of the “Republican Front” seen in past presidential elections to block the far right.
“The idea of a victory for Mariani – even if it is far from being probable – would show that the RN can almost triumph alone over the coalition of all the others and head the powerful executive of a modern region,” said Jérôme Sainte-Marie, the president of the PollingVox Institute.
Mariani has been accused by critics of being an admirer of authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. The prime minister, Jean Castex, warned last week that a Mariani victory would be “very serious” for the country.
The RN also came up short in the Île-de-France region that includes Paris, where its 25-year-old rising star, Jordan Bardella, failed to trouble the rightwing incumbent, Valérie Pécresse, who is expected to easily win the second round.
The first-round results made even more unpalatable reading for Macron and his LREM, confirming the party’s failure to put down local and regional roots despite controlling the presidency and lower house of parliament.
Despite sending several ministers to campaign and Macron himself embarking on a nationwide tour – during which he was slapped by an onlooker – in some regions LREM did not muster the required 10% to make round two.
“2022: What if it wasn’t them?” asked the headline in the leftwing Liberation newspaper over a picture of Macron and Le Pen.
LREM has almost no chance of winning control of a single region and is No 5 among political parties in France.
The Socialists are expected to pick up some regions, partly due to support from the far-left France Unbowed party.
“LREM lacks a local presence, but in 2017 that did not prevent them from winning the presidential and legislative elections,” said Sainty.
Voting began at 8am local time (0700 BST) on Sunday, with the last polling stations due to close 12 hours later.