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France Preps for Presidential Vote     06/20 10:31


   PARIS (AP) -- Marine Le Pen's far-right party is riding high on her 
tough-on-security, stop-immigration message as French voters started choosing 
regional leaders Sunday in an election that many see as a dress rehearsal for 
next year's presidential vote.

   President Emmanuel Macron's young centrist party is expected to fare poorly 
in Sunday's first-round of regional elections, lacking a strong local political 
base and suffering from frustration at his government's handling of the 

   Many polling stations stood largely empty as voting kicked off in schools 
and community centers from Marseille on the Mediterranean coast to Le Touquet 
on the English Channel. Turnout was lower than usual at midday, at just 12% 
nationwide. Those who did show up to vote must stay masked and socially 
distanced and carry their own pens to sign voting registries.

   The elections for leadership councils of France's 13 regions, from Brittany 
to Burgundy to the French Riviera, are primarily about local issues like 
transportation, schools and infrastructure. But politicians are using them as a 
platform to test ideas and win followers ahead of the April 2022 presidential 
election, a contest that Le Pen and Macron are expected to dominate.

   That has frustrated voters like Patrice Grignoux, a 62-year-old tech 
consultant casting his ballot in Paris.

   "The presidential election is a world in itself," he told The Associated 
Press. "When you take Brittany or the Paris region, it's totally different. The 
north is also completely different. ... There are issues you find at a regional 
level but have nothing to do with national issues."

   Parties that win more than 10% of the votes in Sunday's first-round regional 
voting advance to the decisive runoff on June 27.

   Polls suggest that Le Pen's National Rally party may win control of one or 
more regions, which would be a big boost for her decade-long effort to 
legitimize a party long seen as an anti-democratic, anti-Semitic pariah. A 
major question for the runoff is whether French voters will still band together 
to keep the party out of power as they have in the past.

   France's traditional conservative party, The Republicans, looks set to keep 
control of several of the seven regions it currently runs, including the 
all-important Paris area.

   Among the strongest National Rally candidates is Thierry Mariani, running to 
lead the region that includes Provence, the French Riviera and part of the 
Alps. Mariani has said he wants more police and no more public funding for 
groups promoting individual communities, which many see as targeting Muslim 
associations or LGBTQ movements.

   The National Rally has racked up political victories in local elections in 
recent years, and has made security a top issue in this campaign. Its 
candidates have rallied around police unions who say they're facing spiking 
violence, and called for tougher prison sentences and a moratorium on 
immigration -- even though these fall within the powers of the national 
government and not the regional councils.

   France's Greens party, which has surged in recent elections, is hoping to 
gain new influence in the regional vote, while the Socialist Party may further 
lose ground.

   Prospects look shaky for Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party, which 
is just four years old and so didn't exist the last time voters chose regional 
leaders in 2015. It's facing disillusionment with Macron's policies, including 
from rural voters who supported the yellow vest uprising against perceived 
economic injustice.

   The regional elections were delayed as the virus surged.

   As infections have ebbed and vaccinations spread, the French government 
recently reopened long-shuttered restaurants, shops and travel possibilities. 
The prime minister scrapped an unpopular curfew starting Sunday -- just in time 
for the election.

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