France headed to the polls on Sunday for a key regional vote, three weeks after jihadist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead. First results are expected at 8pm local time (7pm GMT).
Around 44 million people are eligible to vote, with France under tight security and in a state of emergency following the country's worst-ever terror attacks, which have thrust the National Front's anti-immigration and often Islamophobic message to the fore.
At 5pm, the interior ministry estimated turnout at 43.01 percent, up slightly from 39.29 percent at the same time in 2010.
The leader of the National Front (FN), Marine Le Pen, is running in the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region – once a bastion of the left – while her 25-year-old niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is a candidate in the vast southeastern Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region.
Reporting from the city of Hénin-Beaumont in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, FRANCE 24's Clovis Casali said: “This has truly become a bastion of the French far right, and Marine Le Pen wants to gain control” and see the FN leadership win a region for the first time.
While President François Hollande has seen his personal ratings surge as a result of his hardline approach since the Paris attacks, his Socialist party has not enjoyed a similar boost.
Security was tight around several polling stations in the capital Sunday, with French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche saying the number of police officers had been multiplied by at least four in light of the November 13 attacks. In some polling stations, voters were also asked to show their bags and open up their jackets before being allowed to enter to cast their ballots.
< Read more: A guide to French regional elections >
Victory for the FN would not only put the party at the head of a regional government for the first time, but would also give Marine Le Pen a springboard for her presidential bid in 2017.
The FN – whose leaders have repeatedly made links between terrorism and immigration – has been rising in popularity since the carnage in Paris on November 13. When it emerged that at least two of the attackers had entered Europe posing as migrants, it allowed the FN to trumpet a message of, "We told you so.”
Any FN election triumph could be undermined if the leftist and centrist parties are able to forge an alliance. But so far the Socialists have not been able to unify with the Radical Left Party; the Socialists therefore remain at risk of falling into third place behind parties to the right.
In contrast, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains (formerly the UMP) has managed to forge alliances with other conservative groups as well as the centrists, creating right-leaning coalitions with a strong presence in regions such as Normandy, Pays de la Loire and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté.
Socialist leaders will begin talks after the first results come in on Sunday to decide if they will pull out of some of the second-round battles, with Les Républicains meeting the following day to agree on their strategy.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
FRANCE 24's Clovis Casali reports from Henin-Beaumont
Date created : 2015-12-06