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

PARIS (AP) — Marine 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 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. The race epitomizes his party’s challenges after it stumbled in the first-round vote. The elections are seen as a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential vote, in which Le Pen is a leading contender.