French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen saw their respective parties stumble on Sunday as incumbent conservatives surged ahead in the first round of regional elections marred by record-low turnout.
Sunday's regional polls had been billed as a dress rehearsal for next year's presidential election – but by 8 pm, the putative protagonists of the Elysée contest had witnessed their respective parties falter at the polls.
Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (RN) was hoping to lead in as many as six of mainland France's 13 regions, putting it on course to win its first-ever region – or more – in the June 27 runoff.
Instead, the party topped just one contest, in the southern Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region, securing only a wafer-thin lead in a race it had hoped to run away with. With a national vote share of around 19 percent, according to projections, support for RN was nine points lower than the last regional polls in 2015.
Far right's Thierry Mariani receives less support than expected in France's PACA region
A bitter Le Pen promptly blamed the setback on the record level of abstention, so often her best ally. She called the low turnout "a civic disaster that deformed the electoral reality of the country", urging her supporters to show up for the second round.
Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron saw his fledgling party suffer another humbling at the polls, a year after its dismal performance in municipal elections.
LREM performed poorly across the country, with a national vote share of just over 10 percent, according to projections. The debacle underlined how it has failed to convert five years in power at the national level into grassroots support.
Party spokeswoman Aurore Bergé called the results a "democratic slap in the face" – surely a more stinging blow than the smack Macron received at a public event earlier in the month.
'Nothing to do with national issues'
Sunday's vote came on the heels of a gruelling year and a half of Covid-19 lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions. It was meant to be centred on local concerns like transportation, schools and infrastructure.
However, proximity to the 2022 Elysée race meant would-be presidential hopefuls seized on the regional campaign to test ideas and win followers.
Security issues that tend to dominate national elections played an outsized role in the campaign, despite the fact that regional administrations have little or no policing powers. Macron's rivals also seized on the opportunity to denounce his government's handling of the pandemic.
The wrangling appeared to turn off swathes of the electorate and less than 34 percent showed up, according to polling agencies – an all-time low that sparked soul-searching and finger-pointing across the political spectrum.
The posturing by potential presidential contenders frustrated voters like Patrice Grignoux, a 62-year-old tech consultant casting his ballot in Paris.
"The presidential election is a world in itself," Grignoux told The Associated Press. "When you take Brittany or the Paris region, it's totally different. The north is also completely different. [...] There are issues you find at a regional level but have nothing to do with national issues."
As LREM and the National Rally failed in their bids to "nationalise" the election, the old establishment parties of left and right enjoyed a much-needed boost in their still-loyal local bastions.
From Brittany to Occitanie, Socialist incumbents topped the first-round vote across swathes of western France, suggesting the moribund party still has a future in local government. Elsewhere, the conservative Les Républicains were the big winners, picking up almost a third of the vote nationwide.
French regional elections: What's at stake in the Hauts-de-France region?
In particular, Sunday's vote was a boost for a trio of conservative incumbents harbouring presidential ambitions: Xavier Bertrand in the northern Hauts-de-France region, Valérie Pécresse in the Paris area, and former party leader Laurent Wauquiez, who almost clinched an outright victory in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes with a staggering 45 percent of the vote.
Of the three, Bertrand was seen as facing the toughest re-election campaign in an impoverished region that has long been a prime target of Le Pen's party. In the end, he trounced his rival from the National Rally.
"We have released this region from the jaws of the National Front," a triumphant Bertrand told supporters on Sunday night, referring to the National Rally by its former name. The fact that Macron's party failed to even qualify for the runoff in the northern region, despite having five cabinet ministers on the ballot, was the icing on the cake.
The US national security advisor said Sunday that even with the election of an ultra-right president in Iran, the "ultimate decision" on recommitting to the 2015 nuclear deal lies with that country's supreme leader.
"Whether the president is Person A or Person B is less relevant than whether their system is prepared to make commitments to restrain their nuclear program," Jake Sullivan said on ABC's "This Week."
His comments followed the election Friday in Iran of ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi as president, succeeding moderate Hassan Rouhani -- for whom the nuclear deal was a landmark achievement -- and they come as talks in Vienna on rescuing the nuclear deal stand at a potential turning point.
"The ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal," Sullivan said, "lies with Iran's supreme leader."
The 81-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has long stood as the ultimate arbiter of Iran's strategic posture. Raisi is considered a close Khamenei loyalist.
Under former president Donald Trump, the United States quit the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed new sanctions on Tehran.
His successor Joe Biden has said he wants to return to the accord as a crucial way of reining in Iran's nuclear program.
The multination talks in Vienna, underway since April, aim to bring the US back into the deal and to persuade Tehran to again abide by curbs on its nuclear program while providing Iran with sanctions relief.
Israel, a close US ally and bitter foe of Iran, has been fiercely critical of the nuclear deal.
Israel's new premier Naftali Bennett Sunday described Raisi's victory as "the last chance for the world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement."
But Enrique Mora, top European Union diplomat at the Vienna talks, said Sunday that negotiators were "closer" to saving the deal, despite some sticking points.
Sullivan also expressed cautious optimism.
"There is still a fair distance to travel on key issues, including sanctions and commitments Iran has to make," he said.
But, Sullivan added, "The arrow has been pointed in the right direction... We'll see if Iranian leaders are prepared to make the hard choices."
© 2021 AFP
Hong Kong's pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper warned Monday it is unable to pay staff and is at imminent risk of closure after the government froze the company's assets using a sweeping new national security law.
Apple Daily has long been a thorn in Beijing's side, with unapologetic support for the city's pro-democracy movement and caustic criticism of China's authoritarian leaders.
Its owner Jimmy Lai is in jail and was among the first to be charged under the security law after its imposition last year. Its chief editor and CEO have been detained and its finances frozen.
Mark Simon, an aide to Lai, said the freeze order by the city's security chief last week had crippled the newspaper's ability to do business.
"Our problem at Apple Daily is not that we don't have funds, we have $50 million dollars in the bank," he told CNN.
"Our problem is the Secretary of Security and the police will not let us pay our reporters, they will not let us pay our staff, and they will not let us pay our vendors. They have locked up our accounts."
Lai, 73, is in prison for attending democracy protests in 2019. He faces a life sentence if convicted of national security crimes.
Last Thursday, more than 500 police officers raided the paper's newsroom and arrested five executives over a series of articles that police said called for international sanctions.
Two of those executives -- chief editor Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung -- have been charged with "colluding" with foreign forces to undermine China's national security and were remanded into custody over the weekend.
The operation was the first time political views and opinions published by a Hong Kong media outlet have triggered the security law.
But it is the use of the law's powerful financial freezing tools that looks set to permanently put Apple Daily out of commission.
- Security crackdown -
The law, written in Beijing and imposed on Hong Kong last June, allows authorities to freeze assets of any individual or company in the international business hub that is deemed to be a security threat.
It does not require a court order.
Last month, Lai's personal assets in Hong Kong and his media company shares were frozen.
Then on Thursday, Secretary for Security John Lee said a further HK$18 million (US$2.3 million) of Apple Daily's company assets had now been blocked.
"These are all orders from basically the Secretary of Security, we are facing a security agency we are not facing courts," Simon told CNN.
Simon is himself wanted by Hong Kong police on national security charges but left the city last year and has since relocated to the United States.
In its own reporting over the weekend, Apple Daily said it was planning to ask Lee to unfreeze some money so it can pay some 700 employees.
If the application is unsuccessful, they plan to go to court, the paper added.
© 2021 AFP
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