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Participation up 7% from first round in decisive French regional elections

Jean Francois Monier, AFP | Xavier Bertrand of Les Républicains and Marine Le Pen of the National Front - candidates for Nord - Pas-de-Calais - Picardie.

French voters headed to the polls on Sunday, with the far-right National Front (FN) hoping to win control of a region for the first time. At 5pm, participation was at 50.54%, up 7% from the first round.

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The anti-immigration, anti-EU, FN topped the vote in six of 13 regions in last weekend's first round, with French voters responding positively to the party's rejection of mainstream politics.

Fears over immigration, the Islamic State (IS) group attacks in Paris that killed 130 people last month, and frustration at high unemployment were also among the factors behind the party's strong performance in the first round of voting on December 6.

But the party faces an uphill battle to convert that performance into victory after the ruling Socialist Party withdrew its candidates from two key regions, urging its supporters to back Nicolas Sarkozy's Les Républicains (formerly UMP) in the run-offs to keep the FN out of power.

National Front eyes big gains in run-off vote

Le Pen responded furiously to the Socialists' political maneuvering, labelling it "undemocratic".

Marine Le Pen and Marion Marechal-Le Pen outpaced their conservative rivals in the first round of voting, each grabbing more than 40 percent of the vote, but the party's hopes of winning its first-ever region could be crushed by its opponents' strategic play.

Trouble for Hollande?

President François Hollande's Socialist Party looks set to lose the domination of the regions it won in 2010. Stubbornly high unemployment and a floundering economic recovery have lost the party support across its base.

Meanwhile Sarkozy, formerly the indispensible media star of his party, has been a glaring absence on the campaign trail hinting at problems in Les Républicains camp.

According to French politics expert Olivier Rouquan, Sarkozy's absence is in part due to the FN’s strong performance in last week’s vote.

“There’s now a desire on behalf of regional leaders to tell voters: ‘We are close to you, we’re listening to you. We’re far from the partisan politics and the national leaders.’ It’s a strategy that the FN has adopted since the beginning,” he told FRANCE 24.

The nearly 50 percent of people who failed to turn out for the first round of the regional eleciton could hold the key to the outcome of the final round, and all the parties have been battling to lure them.

The French regions have wide powers over local transport, education and economic development.

Some 45.3 million people are eligible to cast their ballots, with the last polling stations closing in large cities at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT).

French regional elections 2015: The first-round results
French regional elections 2015: The first-round results

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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