A decisive, second round of voting in France’s regional elections on Sunday is being scrutinised as a litmus test of whether the anti-immigration far-right is gaining in acceptability before the French presidential election next year.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, has spent a decade trying to cast off the extremist reputation that made the party anathema to many French voters in its previous guise as the National Front.
A failure to win control of a region on Sunday would be a stinging setback for the rebranded party.
A record-low turnout of 33% in the first round of voting on June 20 proved particularly damaging for the National Rally and Ms Le Pen’s hopes of securing a regional breakthrough to bolster her 2022 presidential campaign. The party has not previously won a region.
Polls had suggested that Ms Le Pen’s party had the wind in its sails, with legitimate ambitions to win control of leadership councils in one or more of France’s 12 mainland regions.
But the apathy last week also infected National Rally voters.
Only in one region, in the south-east, did the party finish ahead. Its candidates elsewhere were all relegated into second place or lower, with some openly abandoning all hope of winning in round two.
A major question in the run-off is whether voters will band together to keep Ms Le Pen’s party out of power as they have in the past, repulsed by her anti-immigration and anti-European Union populism and the anti-Semitic and racist image that clung to the National Front, founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The party dominated the first round of the last regional elections in 2015, but collapsed in the run-off as parties and voters joined together against it.
The National Rally’s best chance of a first-time regional victory is in the south-eastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region.
Its candidate there, Thierry Mariani, is in a tight race with a mainstream conservative incumbent, Renaud Muselier.
Results are expected after the last polls close at 8pm. The left currently heads five of the 12 mainland regions, while the mainstream right runs seven.