The first round of France’s regional elections left many of the country’s politicians defeated and disbanded. But not Xavier Bertrand, who was in an exciting mood this week when he gathered supporters on a wind-swept outskirts of Dunkirk.
The politician won such a high share of the vote in the northern Hauts-de-France region that he increased his chances of being the leading center-right candidate to run against President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen at next year’s presidential election – a contest for which he has already declared himself.
On the contrary, Le Pen’s far-right National Rally has fared worse than expected last week, and Macron’s government’s La République en Marche party has done so much harm that it has not even been able to qualify for the vote. the second round this Sunday in four of the 13 regions in the European territories of France.
Bertrand is the current leader of an industrialized region that includes Lille, Calais and Amiens, a position he won six years ago with the help of left-wing parties after being badly beaten by Le Pen in the first round. This time he politely reversed the results of the first round, winning a 41% share of the vote against 24% of the RN.
“We managed to push the National Front,” he told the Financial Times after a meeting Monday evening with local mayors and other supporters in rainy Téteghem, near Dunkirk. “I know I have a particular responsibility, to withdraw them, to loosen their jaws, to crush the jaws of the National Front.”
With his eyes on the Elysée Palace in 2022, Bertrand, 56, is determined to demolish the idea that Macron is the best bulwark against Le Pen. It also wants to contrast the polls ’predictions that the presidential election will culminate with the same Macron-Le Pen macron that Macron finally won in 2017.
Like many opponents of the far right, he calls the anti-immigration party with the old and more sinister name of “National Front” given by its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, rather than using “Rally National “as was renamed by his daughter Marine, who tried to rebuild an organization with a reputation for racism and anti-Semitism.
“There is no ‘new’ Front-National in France. They are exactly the same, “Bertrand said.” I know they are incompetent in economic matters. Lies, defamation and deception – these are the methods of the far right. ”
However, even a convincing victory this Sunday will not guarantee Bertrand an easy path to the French presidency.
Bertrand has experience in government as a former national health minister and labor minister, and has also been mayor of St Quentin and directed one of the regional councils, whose main responsibility is transport policy rather than annoying national health or law and order problems.
However, he has already faced stiff opposition from other ambitious politicians of his own center-right party Les Républicains – which he has technically abandoned for the time being because he wanted to launch his candidacy for the Elysee without going through a primary.
These rivals include Valérie Pécresse, who has also left the LR to pursue her ambitions, and Laurent Wauquiez, each likely to win again on Sunday in their respective Ile-de-France regions around Paris and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. in the southeast.
Bertrand, said Christèle Lagier, assistant professor of politics at the University of Avignon, had “strengthened his position, his legitimacy” after the first round. “But the competition between Republicans will be very, very tough. . . I expect his political family to put on a lot of banana skins. They won’t give it up. ”
Vincent Martigny, a professor of politics at the University of Nice, agreed that Bertrand had strengthened his position, but emphasized the upcoming struggle between potential presidential candidates in the ranks of the center-right.
“The problem is that one thing has not been resolved – how to organize the primary between different leaders who are anti-Macron on the right,” he said.
“There is a possibility that Pécresse and Wauquiez will do well in next Sunday’s election, and they could also be candidates, among others. We have to ask ourselves how the head of the right will be appointed. “
Meanwhile, Macron is on track to survive and is unlikely to abandon his candidacy to be the first French president re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
In terms of politics, Macron and Bertrand are remarkably close, especially since Macron – who campaigned as “neither right nor left” – has shifted to the right in the last two years, repressing Islamists. , emphasizing law and order and announcing limits on immigration. The two men have also supported industrial investments in northern France, particularly for batteries used in electric vehicles, to reduce dependence on Asia.
Analysts say that while Macron has been weakened by the poor performance of his Sunday party, founded only in 2016, it would not be unwise to draw too many conclusions from the results of the regional elections with such low turnout. Only a third of voters – and less than a fifth of those under 35 – are eligible to vote.
“It’s not clear what this will do for Macron, since the presidential election is a national event and very much focused on the personalities of the candidates,” Lagier said.
This is one of the reasons why Bertrand, robust and combative, finds himself as a man with his feet on the ground in the provinces, implicitly making a comparison with the hyperintellectual Macron. “I brought a lot of common sense,” he said.