The Green Party’s candidate withdrew from a run-off election in southeastern France scheduled for next Sunday, making it more difficult for far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s party to defeat the center-right and seize control of the region.
Le Pen is expecting to win the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region’s regional parliament and president elections, giving her a platform and political momentum ahead of her planned presidential run in 2022.
In Sunday’s first round, her candidate, Thierry Mariani, finished slightly ahead of the center-right alliance led by incumbent Renaud Muselier, a tighter margin than projected in what is her best chance of ever winning a region.
In municipal and national elections, French mainstream parties have generally rallied behind the candidate best positioned to keep the far right out of power, a strategy known as “le front republicain.”
But on Sunday night, the Green candidate in the southeast, Jean-Laurent Felizia, initially refused to pull out, drawing condemnation from swathes of the French political class.
Under pressure, Felizia eventually announced he had dropped his bid to stay in the race in order to deprive Le Pen of “a stepping stone for her sinister ambitions”.
“I cannot play with fire, for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,” Felizia said.
Le Pen was quick to react, denouncing in a tweet what she called the betrayal and hypocrisy of “the system” and urging voters to get out and vote in Sunday’s run-off.
One opinion poll last week suggested the far right could still win Provence even if all parties do rally behind the incumbent.
Le Pen has made a concerted push to detoxify her party’s image and erode the mainstream right’s vote with a less inflammatory brand of eurosceptic, anti-immigration populist politics.
In other regional elections around France on Sunday, left-wing candidates in the greater Paris region agreed to run on a single ticket in order to enhance their chances of defeating the incumbent center-right Valerie Pecresse.
Pecresse is being mentioned as a prospective conservative presidential candidate in 2022, when President Emmanuel Macron seeks re-election to a second five-year term.
In the first round of Sunday’s regional vote, Macron’s LREM party came in fifth place countrywide, as expected, amid public outrage about crime, job losses due to globalization, and a ruling class perceived to be out of touch with regular voters.