PARIS – It seemed inevitable: another face-to-face in next year’s French presidential election between President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the head of the Right-Wing and Anti-Immigrant National Rally.
But after Sunday’s national regional elections, a resumption of the second round of the 2017 elections appeared much less certain as Mr. Macron’s centrist party La République en Marche and Ms. Le Pen’s party failed to win a only one of the 13 mainland regions.
The defeat was particularly crushing for Ms Le Pen. She had presented the regional elections as a harbinger of her rise to power.
In the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the only region where the National Rally was leading in the first round of elections a week ago, a center-right candidate, Renaud Muselier, defeated the candidate of the Nationwide rally with a comfortable lead, garnering around 57 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.
The National Rally has never ruled a French region, and on Sunday Ms Le Pen accused all other parties of forming “unnatural alliances” and “doing everything to prevent us from showing the French people our ability to lead a regional executive “.
Stanislas Guerini, the director general of Mr Macron’s party, said the results were “a disappointment for the presidential majority”.
They weren’t a surprise either.
Since he tinkered with his party as a vector for his rise in 2017, Mr. Macron has shown little interest in his fortune, relying instead on his personal authority and the aura of the presidency. The party, often referred to simply as En Marche, has never succeeded in asserting itself at regional or local level, despite parliamentary control.
Turnout in the election was very low. Only around 33% of the French voted, up from 55.6% in 2015, a clear sign of dissatisfaction with politics as usual and weariness after the country’s long battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
This low turnout, and the fact that the presidential election is still 10 months away, makes extrapolation from regional results risky. Still, it marked a change. A headline from the left-wing Liberation newspaper above an image of Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen read: “2022: what if it wasn’t them?”
If it is not them, it could be Xavier Bertrand, center-right presidential candidate who has emerged today as the big winner.
Former pragmatic insurance agent of the northern city of Saint-Quentin, Mr. Bertrand, who has already announced that he will run for president next year, won hands down the Hauts-de-France region, with about 53% of the vote.
His victory came despite the relentless efforts of Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen to mark the spirits in the region, which is Mr. Bertrand’s stronghold.
“This result gives me the strength to go out and meet all French people,” said Bertrand. “There is a necessary condition for the recovery of our country: the restoration of order and respect.
Mr. Bertrand, who was Minister of Health and then of Labor in the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, did not attend one of the elite French schools and likes to present himself as a man of the people sensitive to the concerns of the class French worker. He is widely regarded as an efficient and ambitious politician. Another former minister of the Sarkozy government, Rachida Dati, once said of Mr. Bertrand: “He is the one who is most hungry.
Although he left the main center-right party, Les Républicains, a few years ago, Mr. Bertrand is still part of their conservative family and has a visceral hatred for the National Rally of Ms. Le Pen, which he says. wishes to call by its old name, the National Front.
In a sense, the election marked the revival of traditional parties: Republicans on the right and Socialists on the left. Left-wing coalitions, usually including socialists, clung to power in five regions they already governed.
Security has become a major concern of the French ahead of next year’s elections, after a string of Islamist terror attacks over the past nine months. This has posed difficulties for a fragmented French left, which appears to have few answers to security concerns and no presidential candidate around whom it can unite. But the regional elections have suggested that it is far too early to reject the left entirely.
For Mr Macron, who has embarked on a nationwide tour to reconnect with the French after the worst of the pandemic, the results suggest his recent focus on winning right-wing votes that could have gone to Ms Le Pen may have to be reconsidered.
The presidential election is more open than it looks. The French people are more dissatisfied than they appear. More of the same – and a 2022 contest between Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen would be just that – may not be what they are looking for after all.
Aurélien Breeden and Daphné Anglès contributed reports.