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Emmanuel Macron's plot to destroy France's traditional Right has suffered a humiliating electoral setback, casting doubt on predictions of a two-horse duel with Marine le Pen in next year's presidential race.
The French centre-Right has come out the big winner in the closely watched first round of regional elections in which the Mr Macron's LREM party and far-Right leader Marine Le Pen fared far worse than expected.
With the polls so off-kilter and amid record-low turnout of around 33 per cent, the unexpected first-round results prompted some to suggest that a Macron-Le Pen presidential face-off next April may not be the foregone conclusion touted until now.
“It shows that for 2022 things are open and that even Marine Le Pen could end up failing to reach the second round (of presidential elections),” said Eric Woerth, MP for the centre-Right Republicans party.
New presidential contenders?
In what may prove a headache for Mr Macron ahead of next spring's presidential race, two Right-wingers and presidential hopefuls posted strong performances, including Xavier Bertrand in the northern Hauts-de-France.
A jubilant Mr Bertrand, who is polling as the centre-Right’s most viable presidential hopeful, said he had “broken the jaw” of the far-Right.
He also saw off an attempt to neuter his presidential ambitions by Mr Macron’s LREM camp, which failed to qualify for next Sunday’s second round in the region despite dispatching five ministers to campaign there.
Only lists that obtained more than 10 per cent in the first round of the election make it to the second round.
After Sunday’s vote, France’s centre-Right looked on course to hold onto the seven of France’s 13 regions it currently runs, garnering around 27 per cent of the national vote. Other candidates who performed well included Valérie Pécresse in the Paris region and Laurent Wauquiez in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.
The Left-wing and Green parties, including the Socialists and that of Leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, performed better than expected with a combined score of 34 per cent, according to an Ifop poll.
What happened to Marine Le Pen?
Ms Le Pen’s party, RN, was polling to got 19 per cent - almost 10 points lower than in the last election - and Mr Macron’s party, which didn’t exist when the last election was held in 2015, notched only 11 per cent, confirming its feeble presence in local politics in France.
Polls before the vote saw Ms Le Pen’s party coming first in six regions.
In fact, it came out ahead in only one, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, where Ms Le Pen’s frontman, former Sarkozy minister, Thierry Mariani, had been polling to win around 42 per cent of the vote.
In the event, he mustered just over 36 per cent - five percentage points lower than Marion Maréchal-Le Pen in 2015 - while his Right-wing rival and incumbent Renaud Muselier, did better than expected with just under 32 per cent.
In a further blow to the Le Pen camp, the head of the PACA region's Green and Socialist group, which scored almost 17 per cent, on Monday pulled out of the second round so as not to split the anti-far-Right vote.
In a gloomy speech, Ms Le Pen urged her supporters not to be discouraged and to turn out en masse for the second round on June 27.
"Of course we're asking ourselves questions," her number two, Jordan Bardella, told RMC radio on Monday morning. "But it's a two-round election and it's not because we had results that were weaker than we expected that the election is a foregone conclusion.
"There's a second round and voters will have another chance to express themselves," he added.
And what about Emmanuel Macron?
Mr Macron’s party is unlikely to win any region on its own after failing to come first in the Paris region, Hauts-de-France, Grand Est and Centre-Val-de-Loire in this ballot, despite fielding ministers as candidates.
Interior minister Gérald Darmanin confessed that there results were a failure for the Macron camp.
"Democracy means sometimes losing elections. The Presidential majority faced an important hurdle...let us not draw quick conclusions regarding the Presidential elections," he added.
Mr Darmanin also said that Sunday's record low turnout was "a defeat for all of us" as "abstention is a message. The French people are telling politicians they do not trust them."
"No-one can be happy when there is a 70 per cent abstention rate, rising to over 80 per cent among young people," he added.
Mr Macron's party has pledged to pull out in the second round in regions where another group has a better prospect of preventing a far-Right victory.
The centrist French president successfully poached several heavyweight members of the centre-Right Republicans party after his 2017 election and had hoped to siphon off more of its electorate in Sunday's regional ballot or at the very least play kingmaker. The Le Pen camp had, meanwhile hoped to persuade the Republicans' hard-Right rump to jump ship. Both are counting on such extra votes to push them over the line in next year's presidential race.
However, judging by Sunday's first round results, this plan is not working.
Le Monde's François Fressoz said: "This first round marks the resounding failure of a strategy aimed at convincing public opinion that Emmanuel Macron is the only rampart against Marine Le Pen."
Why was there such low turnout?
Asked why turnout was so low, Brice Teinturier, head of the Ipsos polling group in France said:
"These are elections marked by the emergence from the pandemic and the indifference of French people towards the specific stakes of this election which they found hard to identify."
"For them, the real event is the presidential election in 11 months time and there is no real sense of intense anger at the moment," he told France Inter.
That cannot be said for the last regional polls in 2015, which took place in a year when France was targeted by terror attacks.