Thierry Mariani is in a close race with a traditional conservative incumbent to lead the prized region which includes the Côte d’Azur and Provence – a race that epitomizes his party’s challenges after stumbling in the first round.
If Mariani wins on Sunday, it would be a first regional election victory for the anti-immigration National Rally party and a milestone in Le Pen’s push for the presidency next year.
“The election is not over,” Le Pen said Wednesday on France-Inter, urging voters who skipped the first round to stand in the second round and “correct this situation”.
In the first round last Sunday, Mariani, 62, finished slightly ahead of outgoing curator Renaud Muselier in the vast region of south-eastern France known as PACA, which spans the Côte d’Azur, Provence and a corner of the Alps. The polls had predicted a much stronger performance of the National Rally in PACA and in five other regions.
But they were wrong. The political map of the 12 metropolitan regions of France could remain unchanged after the last ballot. The left currently rules five regions and the dominant right seven.
The battle between Mariani and Muselier in one of France’s most picturesque gangs has been nasty, and it is crucial for Le Pen. Like other party leaders, she gave a national spin to the regional elections, turning to the presidential race in 10 months. Candidates from the centrist party of President Emmanuel Macron supported by Muselier are running with him in the PACA region.
Le Pen is seen as likely to reach the second round next year against Macron in a repeated scenario of his 2017 election. Le Pen wants regional roots for his party and the respect that goes with it. Macron’s centrist party, barely four years old, suffered an embarrassing defeat in the first round of regional elections.
Mariani’s challenge was further amplified by the decision this week of the left-wing candidate, an environmentalist, to abandon Sunday’s second round in what the French call a “republican front” to block the far right in power. The same sacrificial maneuver from the left prevented Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal, from marching to victory in PACA in the 2015 regional elections, despite a solid lead in the first round.
This time, Le Pen’s party enters the second round on weaker ground. In northern France, outgoing conservative Xavier Bertrand shouted that he had “broken the mouth” of the far right after winning 40% of the vote in the first round, leaving the National Rally candidate Sébastien Chenu in the dust . Other regions where far-right hopes were high also fell short.
This leaves Mariani igniting flames of hope for Le Pen. Now a European legislator, he was Minister of Transport under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, with a wealth of knowledge that raised eyebrows during his long political career. Despite being a conservative for four decades, Mariani’s far-right leaning has made him somewhat unsuitable, and he is at home in Le Pen’s circle.
Like Mariani, the entire Le Pen clan has rubbed shoulders with the Russian administration for decades with Patriarch Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father. Some have also visited Assad in Syria – despite Marine Le Pen’s decade-long efforts to rebrand his party and rid itself of the anti-Semitism and racism associated with the party once known as the National Front.
A year ago, Mariani was part of a French delegation to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia to Ukraine in 2014. Although the annexation was condemned by the international community – and not recognized by France or the EU – Mariani has made several visits to the Crimea. , including in 2019 for “celebrations” marking the fifth anniversary of “reunification with Russia,” Russian news agency TASS reported at the time.
Le Pen herself met Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in 2017, just weeks before the French presidential election. She pledged to recognize Crimea if elected and pledged to work for the repeal of sanctions imposed by the European Union following annexation.
Meanwhile, Mariani met Assad in 2017, along with two other French lawmakers, and again in 2019 with three European lawmakers from the National Gathering, her sixth such trip. He told French media that every time he visited Syria he met Assad.
“He is friends with all the dictators in the East, starting with Mr. Poutine,” said Muselier, his main opponent in the elections.
Mariani, retaliating, said her opponent once received “with great fanfare the ambassador of Qatar, the international sponsor of terrorism”.
Assad, “on the contrary, fought the terrorists. Perhaps Muselier “would have preferred ISIS to rule Syria,” Mariani said in an interview this week on RTL radio. He said he much preferred Assad, “with all his faults,” to rule Syria.
Opponents of the National Rally pushed to maintain its image as an outcast. Bertrand, the candidate from the north, systematically qualifies the party as the National Front to evoke his past. And Muselier, who this week admitted that the electoral battle “was extremely violent”, at one point called the candidates on Mariani’s list “skinheads and dumbbells”.
Marine Le Pen angrily tweeted that Muselier, with his agreement to include the Macron party candidates on his lists and further strengthen the chances of victory with the withdrawal of the left, “will be the candidate of a whole system, with all its nuances of betrayal, of denial. and hypocrisy.
If his opponent wins, Mariani said on LCI television, PACA “will be the only region that Mr. Macron can win as a trophy”.