French regional run-offs a bellwether for National Front

National Front leader Marine Le Pen (on the right in cellphone screen) posing for a wefie with supporters after casting her vote at a polling station in Henin- Beaumont yesterday.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen (on the right in cellphone screen) posing for a wefie with supporters after casting her vote at a polling station in Henin- Beaumont yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Far-right party took lead in first round of vote; its success will be key to its leader's bid for presidency in 2017

PARIS • The French people voted yesterday in run-offs for regional elections that will show whether the far-right National Front (FN) can turn popularity into power.

Ms Marine Le Pen's party achieved a breakthrough last week when it took the lead in the first round of the vote, drawing strength from fears over Europe's refugee crisis and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks that killed 130 people in Paris a month ago.

"For me, she is going to win. Maybe, it will make all those politicians stop and think," said voter Evelyne Risselin in Ms Le Pen's electoral home base Henin-Beaumont in northern France.

But the anti-immigrant, anti-European Union FN was by no means certain to take any of the 13 regions. The outcome will depend largely on what left-wing voters will do after the ruling Socialist party withdrew from the two regions where the FN was best placed - the north where Ms Le Pen is a candidate and the south-east where her niece, Ms Marion Marechal-Le Pen, is running.

The Socialists urged its supporters to back Mr Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right Republicans party in those two constituencies to keep the FN out of power, and a series of opinion polls have shown that voters might well be heeding that call.

"Voters should not be treated like children, nor be terrorised," a smiling Ms Marine Le Pen told reporters after casting her vote in Henin-Beaumont.

Voter turnout stood at 19.59 per cent at midday compared to 16.27 per cent at the same time in the first round last week, when full-day turnout totalled 49.91 per cent. The Socialists fear that some of their supporters might stay home rather than go and vote for the party of Mr Sarkozy, who is widely despised by the left.

Just under one in two registered voters turned up at the polling stations last week.

President Francois Hollande voted in his electoral home base in Tulle, south-west France, amid tight security after the attacks.

Voter intention polls were not run for all regions and several polls - especially in the south-east - forecasted only small differences between the candidates. "The only thing that is certain is that it will be a very tight race," political analyst Joel Gombin, a specialist on the far-right, said of the run-offs.

The ballot is considered key to the FN's strategy, with the party hoping for a breakthrough that would give Ms Le Pen the springboard for a presidential bid in 2017.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'French regional run-offs a bellwether for National Front'. Print Edition | Subscribe