French far-right falls short in regional elections ahead of presidential vote
By Michel Rose and John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - The French far right again failed to win a single region in elections on Sunday, exit polls showed, depriving its leader Marine Le Pen of a chance to show her party is fit for power ahead of next year's presidential election.
The southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (PACA) had been seen as the far-right Rassemblement National party's best opportunity to secure its first-ever regional power base, but parties from the left to right united in a "republican front" to keep it out.
In what was also a humiliating election night for President Emmanuel Macron, his party failed to win a single region. However, a government source said that while a reshuffle was not on the cards, a few adjustments were possible.
In Provence, initial exit polls by IFOP and Opinionway showed the incumbent conservatives triumphing by a margin of roughly 10 points in the run-off vote
"This evening we won't win in any region because incumbents entered into unnatural alliances and did all they could to keep us out and prevent us from showing the French our capacity to lead a regional administration," Le Pen told supporters.
Le Pen blasted the government for a disastrously organised vote after roughly two in every three voters abstained.
The results raise questions over how successful Le Pen's strategy of softening the image of her anti-immigration, euro-sceptic party to try to eat into the traditional right's vote has been.
Even so, analysts say the apparent failure of Le Pen and her party to win in two of its strongholds should not be extrapolated on to next year's presidential election.
The exit polls showed that the vote was won in each of France's 13 regions by the incumbent centre-right or centre-left lists after Macron's ruling party, which did not exist at the time of the last regional vote in 2015, failed to secure a single region on its own.
Its poor showing underlines how Macron's party has failed to establish itself at the local level and the "la macronie" wave that swept him to power revolves around the figure of the president.
The regional votes left Macron facing the prospect of a narrower path to re-election next year after the centre-right staged a comeback that raised the possibility of a three-way race.
Conservative Xavier Bertrand cemented his status as the centre-right's best chance of challenging Macron and Le Pen after a comfortable victory in the north with a more than 25-point advantage over the far-right.
He painted himself as the defender of the French who "can't make ends meet" and the strongest bulwark against the far right.
"The far-right has been stopped in its tracks and we have pushed it back sharply," Bertrand told supporters moments after the polls closed.
"This result gives me the strength to seek the nation's vote," Bertrand said, alluding to next year's election.
Another re-elected regional leader, Valerie Pecresse in the greater Paris region, hitherto seen as a possible candidate for 2022, chose on Sunday to praise the "French team of the right." Observers saw her remarks as a sign she could rally behind Bertrand.
Senior conservatives crowed that the centre-right's strong performance nationwide meant it was the best-placed force for change.
Turnout was an estimated 35%, pollsters said. Voters typically have little affinity with their regional administrations that are responsible for promoting economic development, transport and high schools.
"I have no intention whatsoever to go and vote today, simply because I've lost faith in our politicians," Parisian Jean-Jacques told Reuters TV while strolling on one of the River Seine's bridges during the day.
(Reporting by Michel Rose, John Irish, Ardee Napolitano and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, and Marc Leras in Marseille; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Matthew Lewis)