Republican, Socialist Incumbents Win French Runoffs

The second round of regional elections confirms the results of the first.

Mabilay Rennes France
Le Mabilay in Rennes, France, February 21, 2019 (Unsplash/Howard Bouchevereau)

France’s traditional major parties are projected to defend their control of the country’s thirteen regions in Europe in the second voting round on Sunday.

Last week, the center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans placed first in all regions, pushing Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal En Marche! into third and fourth place.

The runoffs this weekend confirmed the results with exit polls giving the Republicans 38 percent support nationally, followed by the Socialists and Greens (who allied in the second round) at 35 percent and National Rally on 20 percent.

Elections were also held in France’s five overseas regions.

Presidential ambitions

With turnout at an historically low 33 percent, the results cannot be considered a preview of next year’s presidential election. Polls still put Macron and Le Pen in first and second place.

They do boost the presidential ambitions of the Republicans, some of whose centrist members have defected to En Marche!

In Hauts-de-France, an industrial region in the northwest where Le Pen got 47 percent support in 2017, compared to 34 percent nationally, the center-right Xavier Bertrand, a former labor minister, is projected to win reelection.

In Île-de-France, the Paris region, Valérie Pécresse is projected to see off a strong challenge from the left.

Both are potential presidential contenders, with Bertrand appealing to Le Pen-curious provincial voters who feel ignored by the center and Pécresse to the sort of urban, middle-class professionals who are Macron’s base.

Macron’s strategy

As I wrote here after the first round, the strong performance of the center-right calls Macron’s reelection strategy into question. He would need the support of left as well as center-right voters to defeat Le Pen again.

But that assumes he makes the runoff. A strong center-right candidate could pry away enough voters from both Macron in the center and Le Pen on the far right to keep either out of the second round.

Such a candidate would then hold the best cards to win. To defeat Le Pen, a center-right candidate could appeal to the same coalition of left-wing and centrist voters as Macron. To defeat Macron, a center-right candidate could appeal to Le Pen’s voters in addition to his or her own.

Socialist revanche

The left, which was decimated in the 2017 national and 2019 European elections, also had a good night. The Socialists defended their regional presidencies in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Brittany, Centre-Val de Loire, Nouvelle Aquitaine and Occitanie, and unseated the conservatives on the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

It is only the beginning of a recovery for the party that has given France two presidents since it switched from a parliamentary to a presidential republic in 1958.

Barring a major upset (Anne Hidalgo, the popular mayor of Paris, shouldn’t be written off), the Socialists are still unlikely to qualify for the second round of the presidential election in 2022.

And their revanche was only possible because the Greens were willing to throw their weight behind Socialist incumbents in the second round, even though they have become as popular nationally.

But it could have gone a lot worse.