France elects regional leaders and prepares for presidential election Socialist Party Provence Alpes Emmanuel Macron Côte d’Azur

Marine Le Pen’s far-right party holds its message of security and stop immigration high as French voters begin to choose regional leaders on Sunday in an election that is seen as a dress rehearsal for the next year’s presidential vote.

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

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

Elections for the governing councils of France’s 13 regions, from Brittany to Burgundy and the Côte d’Azur, mainly focus on local issues such as transport, schools and infrastructure. But top politicians are using them as a platform to test ideas and win supporters ahead of the presidential election in April. Le Pen and Macron should dominate this race.

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

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

The traditional conservative Les Républicains party looks set to retain control of several of the seven regions it currently leads, including the all-important Paris region.

Among the best 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 wants more policing and more public funding for groups promoting individual communities, which many see as targeting Muslim associations or LGBTQ movements.

The National Rally has racked up political victories in local elections in recent years and has made security a major issue in this campaign. Its candidates have joined police unions who say they are dealing with an upsurge in violence and called for tougher prison sentences and a moratorium on immigration – even if that is within the powers of the state and not regional councils.

France’s Greens party, which surged in recent elections, hopes to gain further influence in the regional vote, while the Socialist Party could lose further ground.

Prospects look shaky for Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move party, which is just four years old and therefore did not exist the last time voters chose regional leaders in 2015. It faces disillusionment with to Macron’s policies, including from rural voters who supported the Yellow Vest uprising against perceived economic injustice.

Regional elections have been delayed by the rise of the virus.

As infections have waned and vaccinations have spread, the government has recently reopened long-closed restaurants, shops and travel opportunities. The prime minister scrapped an unpopular and exceptionally long curfew from Sunday.

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

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