The regional elections in France are a test of sentiment for Emmanuel Macron ahead of the presidential election. His party does not have much of a chance – and the debates will be determined by his greatest competitor.
It’s actually not going so bad for Emmanuel Macron at the moment. While the number of corona infections is falling, the French President’s sympathy ratings are rising: According to a survey, 40 percent of the French are satisfied with his work. And that after months with strict exit restrictions, around 111,000 corona deaths and a similarly moderate vaccination campaign as in Germany.
These are popularity ratings that his two predecessors were far from at the same time, without a pandemic: Ten months before the presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy got 30 percent, Macron’s direct predecessor François Hollande only 14 percent approval. Nevertheless, Macron is likely to suffer a damper: his still quite new presidential party “La République En Marche” (LREM) will take part for the first time in the regional elections that begin on Sunday.
Presidential election already in mind
The party does not have much chance of winning. “For Macron it’s all about damage limitation,” says Dominik Grillmayer from the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg t-online. The president and the party are aware of this, but a bad result would not be helpful for the upcoming presidential election. Because they are already casting their shadows.
The regional councils in the 13 regions of France are elected. There are also the four overseas regions of French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and La Réunion. Voters can choose from several lists that can be combined from one party, but also from several. If none of the lists wins more than 50 percent of the votes in the first ballot, a second ballot will follow next Sunday: All lists below the 5 percent mark are eliminated. Everyone else can band together to unite more voters behind them. The regional councils then elect their new president for each region.
Content detached from the competencies of the region
In German ears it almost sounds as if all the state elections are being held in two ballots at the same time. The big difference is that the regional councils have less power compared to the capital Paris: The regions have no legislative power, their areas of responsibility include topics such as local transport, the distribution of EU funds or economic development. The federal patchwork that Germany maintains in the school system or in the corona measures is not possible in centralized France.
Against this background, the election campaign debates are surprising: questions about security dominate the discussion. It is not only the most important topic for 47 percent of the French, but also the core competence of the right-wing extremist Rassemblement National (RN) around Marine Le Pen, who wants to apply again for the office of president next year.
Le Pen dominates the debate
Jordan Bardella shows how the RN, which until three years ago was still called Front National, brings its issues into the regional election campaign: The 25-year-old is running for the Le Pen party in the capital region of Île-de-France and is committed to to set up two armed police officers at each local train station. In total, he wants to provide 1,000 new security guards in his first year of election.
For Dominik Grillmayer, two things show that the topics of the election miss the core competencies of the regions: On the one hand, the presidential election campaign has long since begun. On the other hand, the focus on internal security makes it clear how much Marine Le Pen has meanwhile managed to determine the political discussion in France.
New appearance after defeat
In 2015, the party had already won a large number of votes in the last regional elections: in the first ballots it achieved strong results in many places, but lost the majority everywhere in the second ballot. Now things could turn out differently: In the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in the south-east, the RN was traditionally strong, and a victory in the region now seems possible.
In order to join forces, Macron’s LREM joined forces as a counterweight with the conservative Republicans (LR) even before the first ballot. Grillmayer expects a close result there, otherwise some surprises are conceivable: “The Rassemblement National will get the most votes in many places in the first ballot.”
Marine Le Pen during a speech in Fréjus: The politician has prescribed a more moderate course for the right-wing extremist Rassemblement National (archive photo). (Source: Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters)
The fact that Marine Le Pen did not lose ground after her defeat in the runoff election for President Macron in 2017 is also due to a change in strategy: The party, founded in the 1970s by her father Jean Marie Le Pen, who was convicted of playing down Nazi crimes several times , was not only given a new name, but also a bourgeois paint. For example, she said goodbye to her critical course towards the EU and the euro. The father Le Pen was expelled from the party in 2015. In the meantime, 51 percent of the French believe that an election victory for the RN would not pose a threat to democracy.
Little support outside of Paris
According to Grillmayer, there are several reasons why Macron’s party is hardly given a chance: the party, which is only five years old, has not yet managed to become more popular outside of Paris. In contrast, traditional parties such as the conservative Republicans or the Socialists are still deeply rooted in the regions. In addition, there is an official bonus for the incumbent regional presidents. The Macron Party enters the race as the challenger in every election. Grillmayer compares the situation with the previous German state elections. As in Germany, France rarely succeeds in electing the incumbent politicians from office.
Slap on France tour
At the same time, Macron’s stable personal polls do not hide some of the disappointments of his tenure. “You can feel a certain dissatisfaction in the population,” says Grillmayer. Macron started with great expectations, but rushed from crisis to crisis between Islamist terrorist attacks, yellow vests and the Notre Dame fire. The spread of the coronavirus then made his program take a back seat: “The pandemic completely thwarted Macron.”
For Macron, it’s about keeping the damage caused by poor results as small as possible. Since the corona rules have been reduced, he has been trying to get closer to the people again. He has been traveling all over France for a few weeks to “feel the pulse of the country”. He last felt how high this can be in the town of Tain-l’Hermitage: there it was slapped by a 28 year old. In court, the perpetrator said, according to the broadcaster BFM TV, Macron stood for the decline of France.
Others would rather see such a decline initiated by a Le Pen presidency. Dominik Grillmayer does not want to decide who could win another runoff between the two. However, all observers agree that the result could be much tighter in 2022. For Macron, the tasks will not get any smaller by then. By autumn at the latest, it will probably play an even greater role at EU level when Angela Merkel leaves the Chancellery.