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EXPLAINER-Why do France's regional elections matter? Look ahead

·3-min read

PARIS, June 20 (Reuters) - Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National party hoped France's regional elections in June would bolster her credentials as a leader fit for power and provide a platform for her 2022 presidential bid.

Those hopes hung in the balance on Sunday after a record low turnout across the nation saw the party perform worse than predicted. Voters, as expected, also punished President Emmanuel Macron and his ruling party.

WHY DO THEY MATTER?

The next presidential vote is less than a year away. Polls show that contest is most likely to result in a repeat of the 2017 duel between Macron and far-right leader Le Pen - only this time the gap between the two will be narrower.

The regional results do not give a representative snapshot of who will win the presidential vote. However, if the far-right were to secure its first ever regional powerbase it would send tremors across the political landscape.

Macron's ruling La Republique en Marche (LaRem) will not win any region outright, revealing the extent to which it has failed to plant roots locally.

For the conservative Les Republicains party, which has struggled to rebuild its identity since centrist Macron dynamited the traditional parties in 2017, the challenge is to hold onto their seven regions and demonstrate they can serve as a bulwark against the far-right.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Each party presents a list of candidates. If no single ticket garners more than half the votes in round one, all those with more than 10% of votes go into the second round, meaning there can be three or more parties involved.

Party lists may merge between the first and second round. Historically this has happened to block the far-right from winning, a phenomenon known as a 'front republicain'.

Regional council seats are allocated on a proportional basis. The ticket that wins the most votes wins a bonus of a quarter of the seats. This means Le Pen's party can win control of a region with less than 50% of the vote in round 2.

WHERE ARE THE KEY BATTLEGROUNDS?

1) PROVENCE-ALPES-COTE D'AZUR:

The southern region encompassing Marseille and the French Riviera, with above average immigration and unemployment, has long given the far-right some of its best scores.

Polls before the vote showed Le Pen's ticket, headed by a former conservative minister, Thierry Mariani, could win the region that is home to Marseille, France's second city, and the Riviera. Mariani's advantage over his Les Republicains rival on Sunday was narrower than anticipated.

The leader of the Green party ticket said he would not withdraw from the race, a move which would favour the far-right if maintained.

Elabe exit poll:

Far-right (Rassemblement National): 35.70%

Conservatives + Macron's party (LR + LaRem): 34.70%

Left-wing alliance (Socialists + Greens): 15.70%

2) HAUTS-DE-FRANCE:

The northern region around Calais, once home to France's coal-mining industry, pits the incumbent and frontrunner to become the conservative's candidate in the presidential election, Xavier Bertrand, against Le Pen's party spokesman and Macron's justice minister.

A win for Bertrand would bolster his chances of becoming LR's presidential candidate. Macron aides see the one-time health minister as a rival who would erode the president's centre-right voting base.

The margin of Bertrand's projected lead in the first round means he does not need to strike an alliance with LaRem in the second round to defeat the far-right, something that would have undermined his pitch as Macron's opponent-in-chief in 2022.

Elabe exit poll:

Centre-right (LR): 44%

Far-right (Rassemblement National): 24.40%

Left-wing alliance: 18%

Macron's LaRem: 8%

(Editing by Richard Lough; editing by Diane Craft)

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