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After regional vote, focus turns to French presidential race

AFP/Patrick Kovarik | Archive photo of the front entrance of the Elysée presidential palace

The far-right National Front (FN) may have lost out in Sunday’s regional elections, but the party’s record share of the vote has confirmed its leader Marine Le Pen’s status as a major challenger in the race to become France’s next president in 2017.


After coming first in 6 out of 13 regions in the first round of voting on December 6, the anti-immigration party was brought back down to Earth Sunday as voters from the left and centre-right joined forces to keep it from winning power in a single region.

Instead, President François Hollande’s ruling Socialists took five regions, while the centre-right Les Républicains (formerly the UMP), headed by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, took seven. Nationalists won in Corsica.

But despite the setback for Le Pen’s party, the FN’s second-round score was another sign of its growing support base across France. The party recorded its best-ever score for a national election on Sunday with 6.8 million votes, compared to six million in the first round and 6.4 million for Le Pen in the 2012 presidential election.

“Nothing can stop us now,” Le Pen said in a typically bullish speech after polls closed. “We will be the main opposition force in most of the regions of France."

Marine Le Pen delivers speech after far-right defeat

Amid the relief among supporters and politicians on both the left and right at keeping the FN from power, there was no denying that the far-right party is now a major force in French politics.

“Tonight, there is no place for relief or triumphalism,” Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. “The danger posed by the far right has not gone away, far from it.”

Le Pen ‘guaranteed a ticket to the second round’

Like the regional elections, French presidential votes are held in two rounds, with the two top candidates from the first-round going through to a run-off.

“The major plus point for the FN is that it now has a solid electoral base,” Joël Gombin, a political scientist and National Front specialist told French daily Libération on Sunday.

“In the present circumstances, this should guarantee it a ticket to the second round of the presidential elections [in 2017].”

But, as on Sunday, Le Pen’s problem is likely to come in the second round, with voters for the two traditional parties uniting to keep her from power. Such a scenario has already been witnessed in a French presidential vote, when leftist voters backed the conservative Jacques Chirac in a 2002 run-off against Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“The challenge [for the FN] is always the same: in an electoral system that requires making alliances to win, the FN remains completely isolated. And so a victory in a head-to-head vote remains out of reach,” said Gombin.

A Harris Interactive poll for France’s M6 television station backed this up on Sunday, showing that if the presidential election was held now, Le Pen would come out on top in the first round, but lose heavily in the second to Hollande, Sarkozy or another Les Républicains candidate.

Researcher and expert on the French far-right Jean-Yves Camus told FRANCE 24 that the FN’s failure to win power in any regions on Sunday showed it was still a long way from government.

“It proves that Le Pen’s attempts to clean up the image of a party many consider overtly racist hasn’t worked,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in 2017 she gets through to a second round in the presidential election. But she will lose there again because the vast majority of French voters don’t buy it.”

Sarkozy under fire, Socialists do better than expected

For Sarkozy, meanwhile, Sunday’s result puts him in an uncertain position ahead of 2017. The former president would have been hoping for a resounding win to put him in pole position to secure Les Républicains' nomination for the presidential election.

Conservatives divided on Sarkozy after election results

Instead, the party failed to truly capitalise on the government’s current unpopularity, despite an unexpected win in the capital Ile de France region, that has typically been a bastion on the left. Elsewhere, the score for Sarkozy’s party in the second round was inflated by voters from the left trying to keep out the FN.

Criticism of the former president surfaced not long after Sunday’s results were made public.

The party’s number two, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, took a swipe at Sarkozy’s decision not to back Socialist candidates in regions where they had a better chance than Les Républicains of keeping out the far right.

Bruno Le Maire, who stood against Sarkozy for the party leadership in 2014, said the French people had shown their desire for a “political alternative” and for “new faces, including on the right”.

Alain Juppé, one of Sarkozy's biggest rivals for the conservative ticket in 2017, spoke of the party’s need to "change course".

Of all the likely candidates in 2017, Sunday’s vote left Hollande with the most to do. The Socialists suffered their fourth electoral defeat since coming to power in 2012, with voters expressing their exasperation with France’s struggling economy and high unemployment.

"We can no longer continue like this. We must act," Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis warned his party after Sunday’s vote.

Nevertheless, the defeat for the Socialists was far less severe than many had expected, mitigated in part because of the acute upswing in Hollande’s personal approval ratings due largely to his handling of the November terrorist attacks in Paris.

The FN’s advance could also benefit Hollande if the party takes votes that might otherwise have gone to Les Républicains when the country once again goes to the polls in 2017.

(Additional reporting by Tony Todd)

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