Gains seen for far-right in French regional polls

France heads to the polls for the first round of regional elections on Sunday that could see Marine Le Pen's far-right party make gains and step further into the political mainstream.

Gains seen for far-right in French regional polls
French regional elections on June 20th, 2021. Photo: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

The election will see new assemblies elected for mainland France’s 13 regions and 96 departments, with Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) tipped to win at least one region for the first time in what would be a major coup.

Le Pen is not standing as a candidate, but she has been campaigning hard ahead of presidential elections next year that surveys show could end up being a close race between her and centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

“What would be great for her (Le Pen), and would spark some momentum in the pre-presidential campaign, would be if the National Rally won a region,” Stephane Zumsteeg from the Ipsos polling firm told AFP.

Though far-right politicians preside over a handful of towns, running a region with a budget of billions of euros and powers over schools, transport and economic development would lend it the sort of legitimacy that Le Pen craves, analysts say.

The one most likely to tip is the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, where the RN is fronted by Thierry Mariani, a former minister who defected from the centre-right Republicans party in 2019.

The voting will be held over two consecutive Sundays, with a second run-off vote on June 27th necessary unless parties win more than 50 percent in the first round.

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Cucq for the first round of the French regional elections on June 20th, 2021. Photo: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

Prediction problems

Analysts caution against trying to extrapolate too much from the results that in many cases will be driven by local dynamics and a high abstention rate, limiting how much they should be seen as indicators for the larger political picture in France.

But the outcome will inevitably shape the narrative in the coming weeks, particularly with regard to the strength and electability of Le Pen, as well as the state of Macron’s enfeebled party, the Republic on the Move (LREM).

“These elections are never good for the party in power. You always get it in the neck,” a minister told AFP last month.

Predictions are difficult because of the two-stage electoral system and the impact of tactical voting, which usually sees mainstream parties gang up to keep the far-right out of power.

A survey by the Ipsos and Sopra Steria groups last week showed RN candidates leading in six of the 13 mainland regions in the first round, meaning results on Sunday night might suggest sweeping dominance for the party.

But because of anti-RN tactical voting, they could end up losing all of the run-off votes – as they did at the time of the last elections in 2015.

A possible record abstention rate of up to 60 percent is also seen as major factor.

“The more abstention goes up, in terms of the number of votes cast, the extreme ends of the political spectrum are the winners,” said Pierre Lefebure, a political scientist at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

“Above all the RN which has a very committed electorate that has been fired up by campaign material that features Marine Le Pen’s face everywhere just a year from the presidential election,” he added.

Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the left-leaning Jean-Jaures Foundation, believes the vote will likely serve as another step in the normalisation of the once-fringe far right.

“You can see that it’s not so much that the ideas of the National Rally are more popular or are more accepted by French society,” he told AFP. “It’s that the party no longer scares people enough to spark a wave of opposition.”

Voters have largely shrugged off a series of scandals that have enveloped at least half a dozen RN candidates over their past racist or anti-Semitic comments, or criminal records.

The vote is also seen as critical for centre-right presidential hopefuls Xavier Bertrand, head of the Upper France region, and Valerie Pecresse, who runs the Paris area, who are both running for re-election.

The election could also result in gains for the green EELV party, which performed strongly in local elections last year. Polls open at 0600 GMT.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What’s at stake in France’s regional elections

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‘Affaire Mila’: Six convicted for harassing French teen over anti-Islam videos

A French court convicted six people on Tuesday for harassing a teen online over her anti-Islam videos in a case that sparked debate about free speech and the right to insult religions.

'Affaire Mila': Six convicted for harassing French teen over anti-Islam videos

The girl, known as Mila, was forced to change schools and accept police protection due to threats to her life after videos in which she insulted Islam went viral in January 2020 and November the same year.

The court handed sentences ranging from a three-month suspended prison term to four months with an electronic bracelet to the two men and four women, aged 19 to 39.

The six were ordered to pay damages of €3,000 ($3,200) each to Mila.

“Their conviction was necessary,” said Mila’s lawyer Richard Malka, but added that he felt no satisfaction at seeing them sentenced.

READ MORE: What is the ‘Affaire Mila’ and what does it say about France and Islam?

“My only satisfaction would be if Mila were able to lead a normal life… and that is not the case,” Malka said.

In the first viral video posted on Instagram in January 2020, Mila responded to personal abuse from a boy who she says insulted her about her sexuality “in the name of Allah”.

She launched into an expletive-laden rant against Islam along with other explicit comments about Allah deemed highly offensive to practising Muslims.

She published a second video with similar content in November of the same year, after a jihadist killing of French high-school teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown students controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Mila’s lawyer says she received over 100,000 extremely virulent messages in response to the videos, with one person writing that Mila deserved “to have her throat cut”, while others threatened sexual assault.

In July 2021, a French court convicted 11 people for harassment and handed suspended sentences, with some ordered to pay damages of 1,500 euros.

The case has received widespread public attention because it touches on hotly contested issues in France, from cyber harassment to the right to blaspheme, and attitudes to religious minorities.