France elects regional leaders and prepares presidential vote

PARIS – Marine Le Pen’s far-right party is riding its message of security and stopping immigration as French voters start picking regional leaders on Sunday in an election that is seen as a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential vote.

President Emmanuel Macron’s young centrist party is expected to fare badly, lacking a strong local political base and suffering from frustration with his government’s handling of the pandemic.

Participation in Sunday’s first round could reach an all-time high. Those who show up to vote must remain masked and socially distanced and carry their own pens to sign the ballot records.

The elections to the boards of directors of the 13 French regions, from Brittany to Burgundy via the Côte d’Azur, mainly concern local issues such as transport, schools and infrastructure. But leading politicians are using them as a platform to test ideas and gain supporters ahead of the April presidential election. Le Pen and Macron are expected to dominate this race.

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Parties that win more than 10% of the vote in the first round of Sunday’s regional ballot qualify for the decisive second round on June 27.

Polls suggest that Le Pen’s National Rally party could gain control of one or more regions, which would be a big boost to its decade-long efforts to legitimize a party long seen as an undemocratic and anti-Semitic pariah. A major question for the second round is whether French voters will regroup to keep the party out of power as they have done in the past.

A traditional conservative party, Les Républicains seem poised to keep control of several of the seven regions he currently heads, including the very important Paris region.

Among the strongest candidates for the National Rally is Thierry Mariani, candidate for the head of the region which includes Provence, the Côte d’Azur and part of the Alps. Mariani said he wanted more policing and more public funding for groups promoting individual communities, which many see as targeting Muslim associations or LGBTQ movements.

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The National Rally has won political victories in local elections in recent years and has made security a major issue in this campaign. His candidates have joined police unions who say they are facing spikes in violence and called for tougher prison sentences and a moratorium on immigration – even though this falls under the purview of the state and not of the regional councils.

The French Green Party, which surged in the last election, hopes to gain new influence in the regional vote, while the Socialist Party could still lose ground.

The outlook looks fragile for Macron’s centrist party, Republic on the Move, which is only four years old and therefore did not exist the last time voters chose regional leaders in 2015. It faces the disillusionment of Macron’s policies, including from rural voters who supported the yellow vest. uprising against perceived economic injustice.

Regional elections have been delayed due to the rise of the virus.

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As infections have subsided and vaccinations have spread, the government recently reopened restaurants, shops and long-shuttered travel opportunities. The Prime Minister on Sunday lifted an unpopular and unusually long curfew.

On Sunday, voters will also choose people to lead more than 100 “departments” in France, another layer of the country’s territorial governance system.

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