French far right beaten in regional elections

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PARIS — Mainstream candidates delivered a stinging setback to France’s far right in regional elections on Sunday, thwarting its hopes of winning control of a region for the first time and slowing its momentum ahead of the presidential contest next year.

The Ifop polling agency estimated that the far right National Rally barely surpassed 20% of the vote nationally, trailing both the mainstream right and the combined weight of green and leftist candidates.

National Party leader Marine Le Pen quickly conceded that her party had failed to win any of mainland France’s 12 regions. She immediately started looking forward to next year’s presidential vote, but her party’s showing Sunday suggested that it remains anathema to many voters.

Most notably, polling agencies said the National Rally was roundly beaten in the southeast, in the region that had been seen as its best chance of securing a breakthrough victory in the balloting for regional councils. As in previous national and local elections, voters appeared to have come together to prevent a National Rally breakthrough.

Mainstream candidates crowed that they had delivered painful blows to the anti-immigration party. No region changed camps, with the mainstream right keeping the seven it had previously and the left still in control of the other five, according to polling agencies’ projections.

On the mainstream right, Xavier Bertrand, crowed that the National Rally wasn’t only “stopped” in his region, the Hauts-de-France in the north, but “we made it retreat greatly.”

Another projected winner on the right, Laurent Wauquiez, said the far right had been left “no room to prosper” in his region, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.

Although focused on local issues, and marked by record-low turnout, the regional voting was scrutinized as a test of whether the National Rally is gaining in acceptability. Le Pen has spent a decade trying to cast off the extremist reputation that repelled many French voters in its previous guise as the National Front. The party’s failure to win a region suggested that Le Pen and her party remain unpalatable to many before the 2022 presidential vote.

But voter interest was also tepid, at best, with only one-third turning out. Among the few who cast ballots, some lamented that young voters, in particular, appeared to be squandering the last voting opportunity before the 2022 presidential poll.

“It’s shameful,” said Suzette Lefèvre, a retiree who voted in Saint-Quentin in northern France. “Our parents fought for us for this and people aren’t following suit.”

Philippe Corbonnois, another retiree who turned out in Saint-Quentin, opined that young people “maybe don’t believe in politics.”

A record-low turnout of 33% in the first round of voting on June 20 proved particularly damaging for the National Rally and Le Pen’s hopes of securing a regional breakthrough to bolster her 2022 presidential campaign.

Polls had suggested that Le Pen’s party had some momentum. But that wasn’t borne out at the ballot box. A major question in the runoff had been whether voters would band together to keep Le Pen’s party out of power as they did in the past, repulsed by her anti-immigration and anti-European Union populism and the racist, antisemitic image that clung to the National Front, which was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The party dominated the first round of the last regional elections in 2015, but also collapsed in the runoff as parties and voters joined together against it.

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