ON JUNE 17TH, three days before the first round of voting in France’s regional elections, Marine Le Pen is due to drop in on the Mediterranean port of Toulon. For the leader of the hard-right National Rally (RN), the trip serves as a double symbol. Toulon was the first big town hall that the party (then called the National Front) captured, back in 1995. And it lies at the heart of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA), the region whose presidency the RN has the best chance of winning at a second-round vote on June 27th.
Victory there would not only secure the party its first regional presidency. It would also measure Ms Le Pen’s ability to take votes from the mainstream right ahead of the French presidential election in 2022.
Polls give Ms Le Pen’s party the lead in first-round voting in six regions. In PACA, three polls put her candidate, Thierry Mariani, a 62-year-old former minister who defected from the centre-right Republicans, well ahead with 41-43% of the vote. Any contender with 10% of the vote can go through to a second round. After much bickering, Renaud Muselier, Mr Mariani’s nearest rival and the sitting centre-right regional president, is now backed by both the Republicans and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists. Yet the three polls nonetheless give Mr Mariani a narrow victory even if his rivals rally behind a single candidate.
Polls can be a poor guide to French regional elections, partly because turn-out tends to be low. Some French regions are big: PACA is home to 5m people, comparable to a mid-sized state in Germany. But they have limited powers, mostly over transport, secondary schools, training schemes and economic development. With the French only now emerging from their third national lockdown, cafés and beaches will probably exert a greater pull than polling stations.
The real test at these elections, though, is the strength of what the French call le front républicain. This refers to two forms of bipartisanship: the willingness of voters to gang up against the RN in the second round in order to keep it from power, and the readiness of rival qualifying candidates to stand down in order to avoid splitting the anti-RN vote.
Such voting helped Mr Macron defeat Ms Le Pen in the national presidential run-off in 2017. Regionally, it was the decision by two qualifying Socialist candidates to stand down in 2015—one in the north, and one in PACA—that led to the defeat of the FN in both places. The party did well in each region, but primarily for different reasons: in the north it thrived in ex-Communist parts on anxiety about post-industrial decline; in the south on anti-immigrant sentiment. In the northern run-off, Xavier Bertrand, currently the regional centre-right president, last time beat none other than Ms Le Pen.
This time, back-room negotiations between the first and second round will reveal whether competing candidates are again willing to put aside their differences in order to keep the RN out. One poll finds, for example, that Mr Bertrand, who is also a contender for the national presidency next year, would need Mr Macron’s candidate to bow out if he is to beat Ms Le Pen’s man, Sébastien Chenu, in the northern race, for the Hauts-de-France region. At the same time, the rightward drift of the French electorate, as well as the growing acceptability in right-wing circles of Ms Le Pen’s RN, may be eroding the front républicain.
In the south of France, Mr Mariani embodies this shift. With locals and tourists returning to the harbourside cafés in Toulon, and yachts back in the water, France’s malaise is finally lifting. A national curfew is due to end on June 30th. Yet voters still fret about illegal migrants and security. “They are coming through again from Italy,” says one in Toulon, 200 kilometres (120 miles) from the Franco-Italian border.
Mr Mariani is not above blood-and-soil nationalism. He recently, for instance, linked immigration to terrorism. Yet he also lends the RN a veneer of respectability. A poll suggests that a third of those in PACA who voted for François Fillon, the Republicans’ presidential candidate in 2017, would back Mr Mariani. Nerves are running high. Mr Muselier has accused him of being a front for “the shaved heads and dunces”. Mr Mariani called this a sign of “panic”. The rebranded RN, he argues, “is not the Front National”.
The regional election in PACA is not a replica of national sentiment, let alone a presidential election. The RN may yet be kept out. Either way, the result will hint at how far Ms Le Pen can erode the Republican vote and establish the RN as the dominant party on the right of French politics.