Riviera campaign is key to hopes of France’s far-right party

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FILE – In this June 17, 2021, file photo, far-right leader Marine le Pen, right, and local candidate Thierry Mariani, left, campaign at an open air market of Six-Fours-les-Plages, southern France. Le Pen’s once-ascendant far-right party is struggling ahead of runoff elections for France’s regional leadership. Its best chance of victory is Mariani, a European lawmaker who meets regularly with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and celebrated Russia’s annexation of Crimea. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole, File)

PARIS (AP) — The best chance of victory for Marine Le Pen’s far-right party in this weekend’s French regional election runoff is a European lawmaker who meets regularly with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and celebrated Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Thierry Mariani is in a tight race with a mainstream conservative incumbent to run the prized region that includes the French Riviera and Provence — a race that epitomizes his party’s challenges after it stumbled in the first-round vote.

If Mariani wins Sunday, it would be a first-time victory in regional elections for the anti-immigration National Rally party and an important step in Le Pen’s push for the presidency next year.

“The election isn’t over,” Le Pen said Wednesday on France-Inter radio, urging voters who skipped the first round to show up for the runoff and “correct this situation.”

In the first round last Sunday, the 62-year-old Mariani finished slightly ahead of conservative incumbent Renaud Muselier in the sprawling region of southeast France known as PACA, which covers the Cote d’Azur, Provence and a corner of the Alps. Polls had predicted a much stronger showing by the National Rally in PACA and five other regions.

But they were wrong. The political map of France’s 12 mainland regions could remain unchanged after the final round of voting. The left currently heads five regions and the mainstream right seven.

The battle between Mariani and Muselier in one of the most picturesque swaths of France has been nasty, and it is crucial for Le Pen. Like other party leaders, she has put a national spin on the regional elections, looking toward the presidential race in 10 months. Candidates from President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party endorsed by Muselier are running with him in the PACA region.

Le Pen is considered likely to reach the runoff next year against Macron in a repeat scenario of his 2017 election. Le Pen wants regional roots for her party and the respect that goes with them. Macron’s centrist party, just four years old, suffered an embarrassing defeat in the first round of regional voting.

Record-low turnout last week of 34% hit the usually motivated far right hard. Without an enthusiastic rebound by voters, Mariani’s chances of winning the PACA region could be dimmed. Le Pen scolded her party’s supporters for the “civic disaster” and with other far-right leaders ordered them to “Move!” during the final round.

Further magnifying Mariani’s challenge was a decision this week by the leftist candidate, an ecologist, to drop out of Sunday’s runoff in what the French call a “republican front” to block the far right from power. The same sacrificial maneuver by the left stopped Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal, from her march toward victory in PACA in 2015 regional elections, despite a powerful first-round lead.

This time Le Pen’s party enters the runoff on weaker ground. In France’s north, conservative incumbent Xavier Bertrand crowed that he “broke the jaws” of the far right after taking 40% of the first-round vote, leaving National Rally candidate Sebastien Chenu in the dust. Other regions where far-right hopes ran high also failed to deliver.

That leaves Mariani to kindle flames of hope for Le Pen. Now a European lawmaker, he was a transport minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, with a host of eyebrow-raising acquaintances in his long political career. Although he was a conservative for four decades, Mariani’s far-right bent made him something of a misfit, and he is at home in Le Pen’s circle.

Like Mariani, the entire Le Pen clan has a history of rubbing shoulders with Russian officialdom, starting decades ago with the patriarch, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father. Some have also visited Syria’s Assad — despite Marine Le Pen’s decade-long effort to rebrand her party and shed the antisemitism and racism associated with the party once known as the National Front.

A year ago, Mariani was part of a French delegation to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. Though the annexation was condemned by the international community — and not recognized by France or the EU — Mariani has made several visits to Crimea, including in 2019 for “celebrations” marking the fifth anniversary of “reunification with Russia,” Russia’s TASS news agency reported at the time.

Le Pen herself met with Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in 2017 — just weeks before the French presidential election. She pledged to recognize Crimea if elected, and promised to work to repeal European Union sanctions levied over the annexation.

Meanwhile, Mariani met with Assad in 2017, along with two other French lawmakers, and again in 2019 with three European lawmakers from the National Rally, his sixth such trip. He has told French media that each time he visits Syria he meets with Assad.

“He’s buddies with all the dictators in the East, starting with Mr. Putin,” Muselier, his chief opponent in the elections, said.

Mariani, shooting back, said his opponent once received “with great fanfare the ambassador of Qatar, the international sponsor of terrorism.”

Assad, “on the contrary, fought terrorists.” Perhaps Muselier “would have preferred that the Islamic State group run Syria,” Mariani said in an interview this week on RTL radio. He said he far prefers Assad, “with all his faults,” running Syria.

The National Rally’s opponents have pushed to maintain its image as a pariah. Bertrand, the candidate in the north, consistently refers to the party as the National Front to evoke its past. And Muselier, who conceded this week that the electoral battle “has been extremely violent,” at one point called candidates on Mariani’s list “skinheads and dumbbells.”

Marine Le Pen tweeted angrily that Muselier, with his deal to include Macron party candidates on his lists and further bolster chances of victory with the withdrawal of the left, “will be the candidate of an entire system, with all its nuances of betrayal, denial and hypocrisy.”

If his opponent wins, Mariani said on LCI television, PACA “will be the only region that Mr. Macron can take home as a trophy.”

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