Le Pen, Macron parties falter as conservatives surge in French regional polls
Marine Le Pen (AFP/File / Lionel Bonaventure)

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.

Low turnout among younger voters and over-35s in France's regional elections

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."

Conservative surge

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.

(With AP)