France’s far-right National Front tops first round of regional vote
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France’s far-right National Front (FN) party rode a wave of fear over immigration and terrorism to storm to a commanding position in the first round of voting in the country’s high-stakes regional elections on Sunday.
The anti-immigration party led by Marine Le Pen scored around 28 percent of the vote nationally and topped the list in at least six of 13 regions, according to final estimates from the interior ministry.
The FN came ahead of both former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains (formerly the UMP), which earned 27 percent, and President François Hollande’s Socialists, with 23.5 percent, official estimates showed.
Le Pen and her 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen broke the symbolic 40 percent mark in their respective regions, shattering previous records for the party as they tapped into voter anger over a stagnant economy and security fears.
The polls were held under tight security in the first national vote since Islamic State group terrorists killed 130 people in a wave of attacks across Paris on November 13.
Despite its commanding position, the FN now faces a tougher battle in a second round of voting next Sunday after the Socialists announced they were withdrawing candidates in three regions in a bid to block the far right from power.
Le Pen, a lawyer by training, welcomed the "magnificent result", saying it proved the FN was "without contest the first party of France".
"This is a great result that we welcome with humility, seriousness and a deep sense of responsibility", said Le Pen as she addressed supporters in the town of Hénin-Beaumont in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
“We are without question the first party of France," she added. "We have the vocation to achieve the national unity that the country requires.”
Le Pen called on all “patriots” to back her party in the second round and “turn their backs on this political class that deceives them”.it
The FN had already been predicted to do well in Sunday’s regional elections, spurred by anti-immigration sentiment amid an influx of refugees into Europe in recent months – a particularly emotional issue in the Calais region where many migrants have temporarily settled while attempting to enter the UK.
Though Le Pen has attempted to steer her party away from some of its more extreme rhetoric of the past, she has been typically uncompromising on the immigration issue.
"Feed them, warm them up, and send them back where they came from,” she told reporters earlier this year.
But a patriotic wave after last month’s attacks in Paris has added to the FN’s momentum.
“The FN received a first boost with the migrant crisis,” Bruno Jeudy, political editor at French magazine Paris Match, told FRANCE 24.
“Le Pen ran a national campaign that was entirely focused on immigration. Then the Paris attacks came and it was an unexpected second boost. The momentum that already existed was increased tenfold.”
Le Pen was quick to associate the attacks with immigration and with refugees fleeing war-torn Syria for Europe.
“The Islamic State group keep their promises," Le Pen said in a speech last month. "They vowed to attack, and there were attacks in France. They said there'd be killers among migrants and indeed there were. Politicians here need to open their eyes. There is a link between massive immigration, failure to integrate, and radical Islamism.”
Since taking over the party's reins in 2010, Le Pen has sought to steer the FN away from its more extreme leanings in an attempt to build it into a viable election prospect. In doing so, she has often clashed publicly with the party’s founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Sunday’s landmark performance will be seen as a vindication of her strategy as well as a significant altering of the landscape of French politics ahead of presidential elections in 2017.
That election now looks increasingly like it will be a three-horse race, with Le Pen's FN becoming a genuine contender against the Socialists and centre-right Les Républicains.
“This is a bad sign, because the National Front is becoming little by little more legitimate,” Alain Alpern, a former Green and Socialist party local councilor, told Reuters outside a polling station in Hénin-Beaumont as the vote was taking place. “People don’t realise what is in store for them.”
Meanwhile, Sunday’s result was a major, if not unexpected, blow for Hollande’s Socialists. The party, which won all but one French metropolitan region in 2010, has long been riding low in the polls, and a surge in Hollande’s approval ratings for his handling of the Paris attcks was seemingly not enough to turn the tide.
The result will also be a disappointment for Sarkozy’s Les Républicains, with the recently rebranded party failing to capitalise on the Socialists’s drop in support.
That will come as a personal blow to Sarkozy, who had been hoping for a strong showing to help secure his nomination as the party's candidate for the 2017 presidential vote.
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