In sweltering campaign headquarters in Toulon, southern France, Marine Le Pen beamed from behind Ray Bans at her latest catch.
he 62-year-old by Le Pen’s side was the perfect flag bearer for her drive to poach figures from the mainstream right.
“They try to peddle fear about us but nobody is scared of Thierry Mariani,” Le Pen said to the softly spoken candidate.
She is backing him to run Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur — the vast French region encompassing the southern Alps to glitzy Saint-Tropez and Cannes on the Riviera and the restive banlieues of Marseilles to the west.
Her National Rally party, or RN, runs about 10 towns in France, but it has never won one of the country’s 13 regions, which command a huge budget. These are up for grabs today and next Sunday, along with assemblies for 96 departments, or counties.
Until now, mainstream parties have kept the far-right out through a “republican front” — namely, tactical voting with the left often pulling out to help the mainstream right win.
That strategy may fail for the first time thanks to Mariani, who jumped ship to be elected to the European Parliament with Le Pen’s group in 2019.
“Nobody sincerely believes the French republic would be in danger if the National Rally and people like me clinched this region,” he claimed.
Victory in PACA, as the southern region of five million is known, would be a coup for Le Pen. She hopes victory will prove a stepping stone to the Élysée Palace in next spring’s presidential race, which is shaping up once again as a duel between her and Emmanuel Macron.
Her party is polling to come first in six regions in round one but may then fall foul of tactical voting, except in PACA. Polls suggest Mariani will come first in round one and could clinch the decisive second round in a week’s time.
President Macron’s LREM party is unlikely to win any regions, but has members on the lists of several centre-right candidates.
“The witch hunt against RN is a lazy ploy,” Le Pen said. “If we win a region, it will remove another argument against us. I will form a government of national unity if the French entrust me with the presidency.”
That remains an unlikely prospect given Macron’s approval ratings, which have received a boost as France exits lockdown earlier than expected.
Mariani’s main rival, Renaud Muselier, the incumbent who is backed by the Macron camp, urged voters not to be lulled into thinking the far-right was now palatable. At his final rally he said his rival was a Le Pen “slave” and “puppet” backed by a bunch of “skinheads and dimwits”.
He accused Mariani of having a soft spot for autocrats like Vladimir Putin, whose decision to annex Ukraine he supported, and Bashar al-Assad, who he visited during Syria’s civil war. “A vote for Mariani is a leap into a black hole with no parachute,” he said.
However, with abstention rates expected to pass 60pc, the mood in the streets is more apathy than fear.
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2021)
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