Regional elections can be an unreliable guide to next year’s competition for the Elysee Palace. Regional councils have limited powers and, in a large country like France, their leaders lack proximity and relevance vis-à-vis the voters of local mayors. Two-thirds of voters did not bother to vote. Next year’s presidential race will be another matter.
Two further conclusions can be drawn. The first is that the center of gravity of French politics has tilted sharply to the right and that is where next year’s elections will be played out. The left has been more resistant than expected but is divided between different parties.
The second is that the center-right has political momentum as the country prepares for the presidential campaign as the far-right National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, has gone bankrupt. Even in the southern region of Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur, the only place where it won in the first round, the far right was beaten head-on by the outgoing. The glass ceiling which retains RN from an executive post higher than the handful of town halls under his control is intact.
Sunday’s victory gave three traditional Tory candidates a launching pad for their presidential ambitions. Foremost among them is Xavier Bertrand, the president of the Northern Hauts-de-France region, who wasted no time in declaring that he was now part of a three-party presidential election with the Macron leaders and Le Pen. A career politician, Bertrand’s speech is to be a more conventional center-right version of Macron without the president’s Jupiterian personality who seems to put off so many French voters. His claim to be a stronger bulwark against the far right than Macron was bolstered by his wide margin of victory over regional candidate Le Pen on Sunday.
Opinion polls suggest Bertrand would beat Le Pen by a wider margin than Macron in a presidential runoff in April. But if he has benefited from a rebound in the polls thanks to his regional success, Bertrand is still credited with only 16% support in a presidential election in the first round. He has a lot of catching up to do and will need a good run for the center-right appointment. Two other region presidents easily re-elected on Sunday – Valérie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez – have their own ambitions. The French conservatives are very good at fighting. And the divisions between moderates and socially conservative Eurosceptics are still there.
Macron’s popularity is in better shape as France emerges from the pandemic. But he has a dilemma. He won power by appealing to both center-right and center-left, but gradually shifted to the right. To strengthen the support of the conservatives, he must relaunch economic and social reforms. If he pushes too hard, he could rekindle social protests and hurt his chances of re-election. The president evoked a political identity by claiming to eclipse old ideological affiliations. The recent success of the center-right suggests that they still have some life left.