Voting on Sunday will set the stage for next year’s presidential race and may hint at the strength of the National Rally, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party.
PARIS — French voters on Sunday were heading to the polls for the first round of nationwide regional elections, with the far right aiming for a strong showing just as the country’s political center of gravity is undergoing a rightward shift.
While regional elections in France rarely come with high political stakes, this year’s contest is regarded as a bellwether for next year’s presidential race. Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, unabashedly framed the contest as a dress rehearsal for the 2022 presidential elections, in which she will likely be the main challenger to President Emmanuel Macron.
“The victories that we will achieve will be as many steps on the path that leads to national victory,” Ms. Le Pen told reporters on Friday, as the campaign drew to a close.
Sunday’s vote also coincides with the country’s exit from a seemingly endless cycle of coronavirus-related restrictions, which have fueled a deep sense of fatigue and frustration in the population.
The political campaign — which was delayed by a year because of the pandemic — has been marked by acts of violence against political leaders, letters from military personnel warning of an impending civil war and inflammatory speeches fueling France’s growing culture wars.
“We see a growing polarization of society, aggressive debates, an extremely frictional and inflammatory dimension,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris.
Ms. Le Pen and her party, the National Rally, could benefit from that polarization. Pre-election polls suggested her party had an edge in the first round in six out of France’s 13 mainland regions.
For Ms. Le Pen, the regional elections mark a new phase in her strategy to rise to power.
She has tried to soften her party’s image in recent years to win new converts who, until now, tried to block the far right from gaining power by voting for the best-positioned mainstream party in an election — a phenomenon known as the “Republican front.”
That front began to crumble in last year’s municipal elections, when Ms. Le Pen’s party captured Perpignan, the first city of more than 120,000 inhabitants to fall to the far right. Ms. Le Pen hopes this month’s elections will further accelerate those gains and serve as her springboard for higher office.
But her party may face a tougher task in the second round of voting, as other competing parties will likely scramble to keep the far right from power.
In the regional elections, all parties with more than 10 percent of the vote go to the second round, when coalitions can be formed to win a majority of votes.
In 2015, the National Rally pulled ahead in six regions in the first round but was eventually defeated in all, a sharp setback that prompted Ms. Le Pen to redouble efforts to normalize her party’s image, while holding onto its hard-line positions on immigration, Islam and security.
Mr. Cautrès said the voting could be marked by record-low voter turnout. A survey by the polling firm IFOP projected around 60 percent of voters — about 20 million overall — would stay away.
“What is happening with the French democratic model?” Mr. Cautrès asked, noting that abstention had been rising in every election in recent years.
In France, where most powers are centralized, regional councils hold little influence over long-term policies, which is why some voters regard the regional elections as pointless. Regional councils oversee local infrastructure projects such as high schools, intercity transport networks or regional natural parks, but they barely have a say in major issues like security.
This year’s regional elections also signal a new phase in the restructuring of the country’s political cleavages, with the traditional left-right divide in tatters while Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen dominate national politics.
In the southeastern region, called Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the candidate leading the charge for the National Rally is a defector from Les Républicains, the French center-right party.
To ward off the threat of a far-right victory, Mr. Macron’s La République en Marche party made an alliance in May with Les Républicains. But the electoral pact only resulted in dividing the center-right party, pitting liberals against conservatives who called the arrangement a betrayal.
On Friday, Ms. Le Pen, who said Les Républicains was now a party “where starving survivors devour each other,” called on conservative voters to support her movement in Sunday’s vote.
Mr. Macron recently set off on a six-week political tour of France in an effort to reconnect with French people as they emerge from the coronavirus crisis, and in what appears to be a first step in his expected 2022 re-election campaign.