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POLITICS

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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MONEY

Revealed: What will you receive from France’s €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

The French parliament has finally passed a massive €65 billion package of measures aimed at helping French residents with the spiralling cost of living. Here's a rundown of the help on offer, who it's available to and when it comes into effect.

Revealed: What will you receive from France's €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

After three weeks of sometimes heated debate, France’s parliament has adopted its multi-part purchasing power package to help mitigate rising cost of living and inflation.

In total, parliament approved a budget of nearly €65 billion for the whole package. 

It includes a raft of measures including price shields, tax rebates and grants. Here’s what is included and who will benefit.

Electricity and gas The government has voted to extend the tariff shield on gas and electricity prices until the end of the year: this means that gas prices will continue to remain frozen and that price hikes for electricity prices will be capped at four percent. 

For who: This applies to everyone who has a gas or electricity account in France.

When: The price freeze is already in effect and will continue until at least December 31st.

Fuel subsidy – The government’s fuel rebate (on petrol/gasoline and diesel) will be increased from €0.18 per litre to €0.30 in September and October, and then in November and December it will fall to €0.10. 

For who: All drivers (including tourists) – this is applied automatically at all fuel stations in France

When: The €0.18 per litre rebate is already in place and remains until August 31st, and rises to €0.30 on September 1st.

Pensions – The index point for pensions will be raised by four percent.

Who: This covers anyone who receives a French pension – roughly 14 million people – it does not affect anyone who gets a pension from another country.

When: From September 9th. 

Abolishing the TV licence fee – The annual TV licence raised €3.7 billion a year for public broadcasting, with the majority having gone toward France Télévisions, but has now been scrapped. It was €138 per household. 

For who: Any household with a television. This equates to about 23 million households in France who will no longer have to pay this yearly tax.

When: The was due to be levied on November 15th, but this year no bills will be sent out.

Tripling the Macron bonus – The maximum annual bonus – which is exempt from income and social security taxes – will be tripled.

It is a one time, tax-free payout that can be given to workers by their employers – if they chose to. Companies will now be able to pay up to €3,000 to their employees (and up to €6,000 for those with a profit-sharing scheme).

Who: This pertains to salariés (employees) whose businesses choose to offer this bonus.

When: The bonus can be paid between August 1st and December 31st.

Rent cap – Rent increases will be limited to 3.5 percent per year for existing tenants. Some cities already have in place their own rent control schemes, but the 3.5 percent cap is nationwide.

Who – This affects anyone who already has a tenancy agreement for a property in France (and also affects all landlords who are banned from making big rent hikes).

When – The 3.5 percent cap concerns annual rent increases that fall between July 2022 and June 2023.

Housing allowance – Those who benefit from personalised assistance for housing (APL) will see that increased by 3.5 percent.

Who: This pertains to those who qualify for governmental financial assistance with rent. Typically, this means low-income households. If you are already on APL – around 3.5 million people – the increase will be automatic, if you think you might qualify, apply through your local CAF.

When: The increase comes in your next payment, with the increased rate backdated to July 1st 2022.

Social benefits – The RSA top-up benefit will be increased by four percent (local authorities, who deal with RSA, will receive €600 million to help them finance and allocate this increase). Additionally, those who benefit from the ‘prime d’activité‘ (activity bonus) will see that value raised by four percent as well.

Who: Unemployed people below the age of 25 can qualify for RSA – this pertains to about 1.9 million people in France. The activity bonus is available to low-income workers – about 4.3 million people.

When: Catch-up payments will be in place from August 18th to September 5th. On September 5th, the updated payment will begin to be paid out.

Student grants – An increase of 4 percent for student grants (bourses) for higher education

Who: Students under the age of 28 who qualify for financial assistance in the form of grants. These students must qualify as ‘financially precarious’ for the school year of 2022-2023.

When: September 2022

Back-to-school grants – Families who meet certain income requirements are eligible for an allowance to help cover back-to-school costs – that grant will increase by four percent this year. There will also be an extra €100 subsidy for eligible families (with an additional €50 per child) paid “to those who need it most” according to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in an interview with RTL. 

Who: Low-income families with children. You can test your family’s eligibility on the website www.service-public.fr. This aid will impact 10.8 million households.

When: The one time payment will be paid at the start of the school-year in September.

The option to convert overtime days into extra cash – This is encompassed in two measures: increasing the ceiling of tax exempt overtime hours to €7,500 and opening the possibility for companies to buy back RTT days from their employees.

Eligible employees covered by the 35-hour week agreement accrue time in lieu if they work overtime, known as RTT days. Currently this time is taken as extra vacation days, but now employees will have the option to forgo the time off and instead be paid extra.

Who: For the buying back of RTT days, this applies to employees (salariés) who have an RTT agreement with their company.

For the increased cap on non-taxed overtime work, this applies to a range of employees, such as those who have 35-hour per week contracts and have their employer request that they work overtime or those who work beyond their part-time contract amount. You can learn more about whether you have the ability to declare overtime hours HERE

When: The RTT days buyout will run from between January 1st, 2022 to December 31st, 2025. For employees eligible for tax-free overtime compensation, the ceiling of €7,500 will only be in place for the year 2022.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

Pay rise for public sector workers – public sector pay will get a four percent rise in the index.

Who: Anyone employed in France as a fonctionnaire (eg civil servants, teachers, librarians).

When: This will be retroactive to July 1st

Assistance for some self-employed workers – A reduction in health and maternity insurance contributions will be introduced for low-earning self-employed workers. “Microentrepreneurs” will also benefit from a reduction in their flat-rate contributions.

Who: Self-employed workers whose monthly income does not exceed 1.6 times the minimum wage and who are registered as ‘microentrepeneurs’

When: TBC

The biometric carte vitale –  The Senate introduced this into the purchasing power package, but it is not a benefit. It will involve the implementation of a biometric carte vitale health card to “fight against social fraud” by adding an electronic chip with biometric data on it to health insurance cards. You can read more HERE.

Who: Everyone who is registered in the French health system and has a carte vitale (about 60 million people)

When: Lawmakers will begin plans to implement the plans in Autumn 2022, but it’s not clearly exactly what form the rollout will take.

How much will these measures impact inflation?

Some measures will likely be more effective than others. For instance, the extension of the tariff shield and increase of the fuel rebate in the early fall is largely to thank for France’s inflation level being two points lower than the European average, according to INSEE.

On the other hand, the tripling of the ceiling for the (optional) Macron bonus will likely not make a large difference. This is because it will likely not be widely taken advantage of, as last year only 4 million French people received the optional bonus, with the approximate average of the bonus having been only €500.

The pension changes will impact about 14.8 million people in France. However, according to economist Christopher Dembik, the revalorsation values are based on actual inflation and not on inflation expectations. “These revaluation measures will be too weak by the time they will be implemented,” Dembik said to French daily Le Parisien.

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