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 — a contest 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.
“To the polls, patriots,” Le Pen said in a tweeted video, after scolding National Rally supporters for a “civic disaster” - a reference to the unusually low turnout of 33% in last Sunday's first round that hit her party hardest.
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. Without an enthusiastic rebound by voters, Mariani's chances could be dimmed. The left currently heads five of France's 12 mainland regions while the mainstream right runs seven.
The battle between Mariani and Muselier in one of the most picturesque swaths of France has been nasty, with both men - one-time French lawmakers - dredging up dubious moments from each other's past. At one point, Muselier called candidates on Mariani's list “skinheads and dumbbells,” and refused to shake Mariani's hand after a televised debate on Thursday.
But the PACA battle is crucial to Le Pen. Like other party leaders, she has put a national spin on the regional elections, looking toward the presidential race in 10 months. Le Pen is considered likely to reach the runoff next year against President Emmanuel Macron in a repeat scenario of his 2017 election. Le Pen wants regional roots for her party and the respect that brings.
Mariani faces challenges galore. Candidates from Macron’s party are bolstering Muselier, running with him in the PACA region. Making matters worse 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 to victory in PACA in 2015 regional elections, despite a powerful first-round lead.
This time Le Pen's party enters Sunday's 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. A conservative for four decades, Mariani with his far-right bent, was something of a misfit. But 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 its patriarch and Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen. 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 her father's 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 in 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 said.
Shooting back, Mariani said his opponent once received “with great fanfare the ambassador of Qatar, the international sponsor of terrorism.”
He defended Assad for having “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.
Marine Le Pen tweeted angrily that Muselier's deal to include Macron party candidates on his lists and while boosting his changes at victory with the withdrawal of the left make him 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.”