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Presidential Race Looming, France's Regional Elections Will Show Status Of Parties

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

French voters head to the polls this weekend for the first round of elections in the country's 13 regions. Like U.S. midterms, it's seen as a bellwether ahead of next year's presidential race. And for the first time, the far right is poised to win control of one of the country's regions. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: On this warm spring evening, a crowd gathers near a church on a palm tree-lined plaza facing the Mediterranean Sea. People in the working-class town of Bandol are here for a rally in support of a far-right candidate who's running for president of their region on the French Riviera. In the crowd is 70-year-old Damienne Lequien, who says President Emmanuel Macron has brought France low.

DAMIENNE LEQUIEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Imagine what Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks when he sees the French president get slapped in the face, says Lequien. She's talking about an incident that happened last week when Macron was shaking hands in a crowd. She goes on.

LEQUIEN: (Through interpreter) Macron speaks poorly about France when he's abroad. He's giving the country away. And why does he speak English all the time? General de Gaulle only spoke French. Macron's a globalist. We need someone to restore French grandeur and sovereignty.

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THIERRY MARIANI: (Speaking French).

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: Lequien plans to vote for candidate Thierry Mariani, who has just taken the stage. Mariani is running on the ticket of Marine Le Pen's far-right party, the National Rally. He promises to make the streets safer and tighten the nearby border with Italy against illegal migrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIANI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He disparages the record of the current regional president, who hails from the mainstream conservative party that Mariani used to belong to. But that party was devastated by Macron's victory with his brand-new party in 2017. Analyst Jean-Yves Camus says the French political landscape has completely changed from five years ago.

JEAN-YVES CAMUS: The political landscape in France is just so scattered. And the formerly mainstream parties are so small, and their voters are so disillusioned with them.

BEARDSLEY: Polls show Le Pen is again poised to be Macron's chief opponent in next year's presidential race. But this second time around, her numbers are higher, and it's Macron who's moving to the right in a play to capture her electorate. Candidate Mariani says Le Pen's party is seizing the moment.

MARIANI: I think the most important question now for French people is immigration and violence. And in fact, we want to have an occasion to prove that we can change the country because we are able to change a region.

BEARDSLEY: Mariani's region is a prize. It's prominent, says Camus, and its French Riviera location would showcase the far-right to the world.

CAMUS: Between Marseilles and Nice was a lot of tourists, a lot of activity for foreign companies. So that would also mean something in terms of, oh, France is seen abroad.

BEARDSLEY: People crowd around Mariani for selfies. They say fighting radical Islam should be a top priority after several terrorist attacks in the last year. That feeling is also being stoked by social media and television news channels that increasingly push identity politics.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking French).

JOAQUIM BISMUTH: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Joaquim Bismuth is watching his three little daughters run around the plaza. He describes the situation in France as tense and very complex.

BISMUTH: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: There's a confrontation between two opposing sides, he says, nationalists who can sometimes be racist and those for globalization. The climate in France today, he says, reminds him of the U.S. five years ago on the eve of Donald Trump's election.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Bandol, France.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI SONG, "DO THE WHIRLWIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.