Nothing went as predicted in France's regional elections. Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National did not win a single region and Emmanuel Macron's La République en Marche failed to grow roots in local government, or even act as a kingmaker. All incumbent regional candidates were re-elected, sometimes with quite a comfortable margin. Does this mean we are back to the good old left-right divide in French politics?
Regional elections are not national elections, of course. Abstention reached a record high in this election and voters from RN and LREM have shunned the regional vote more than left-wing and conservative voters. Still, those regional elections challenge two important narratives that Macron had been relying on in the past: one is that the LREM will revolutionise and rejuvenate the political landscape. The second is that Le Pen is the candidate Macron will meet in the second round of the presidential elections next year.
Les Républicains were the big winners in these elections. They can claim now that they are the real bulwark against the far right. Heavyweights like Xavier Bertrand, Laurent Wauquiez or Valerie Percresse won their regional seats with a wide margin. Bertrand's and Wauquiez’s victory speeches left no doubt that they have higher ambitions. Will the LR now unite behind one presidential candidate? This will be the party’s biggest handicap. The party has massive potential to make it into the second round of the presidential elections, yet they have to get there by overcoming their internal divisions.
For Macron’s campaign this is not just about narratives. Grassroots matter when preparing for presidential elections. Macron had grassroot support when he took the Elysée palace by storm in 2017, but this time there is no such momentum. The regional elections were also a reminder that the top-down approach to politics does not always work. Macron has been campaigning for the past few weeks in all but name. A poster in the Paris region read: I support Emmanuel Macron, I vote for Laurent Saint-Martin. Even the timing looked favourable for the President as the nationwide curfew came to an end. Still, LREM picked up just 11 per cent nationwide and failed to surpass the 10 per cent hurdle to qualify for the second round in 5 of the 13 regions.
A demoralised party is the last thing Macron needs as he starts campaigning for re-election. Will his voters who shunned the regional elections show up this time? This is his best shot at being re-elected.
As for Le Pen, her decision to become more mainstream will be challenged. Her voters did not show up to help her. And although polls predicted a win for her in 6 out of 13 regions, the RN lost every region – including the Paca region, which seemed a safe win for her party. What was meant to be a springboard towards national campaigning now becomes a handicap.
Can Le Pen still be more than a protest vote? Traditionally her voters were not keen on regional elections and polls over the last months predicted she would end up in the second round next year. But her position will be challenged inside and outside the party.
Externally there is Eric Zemmour, a French political journalist, who could challenge her by running with an agenda that could rally the far-right, that is if he dares to take up the baton. Le Pen could be challenged inside her own party too. Next week the RN will hold a party congress to designate a new leader to take over from Le Pen, so she can concentrate on her campaign to run for the presidency. If Louis Aliot, the mayor of Perpignan, were to be elected, Le Pen would be challenged internally over her more mainstream programme. A divided party puts off voters. If even her own party is not enthusiastic about Le Pen, why should voters be?
A centre-right that is united and a far-right that is disunited behind their respective presidential candidates are potential game changers to watch out for.