PARIS/HENIN-BEAUMONT • France began voting in high-stakes regional polls yesterday, just three weeks after deadly Islamic State in Iraq and Syria attacks (ISIS) in Paris that could bring strong gains for the far-right National Front (FN).
Security was beefed up at polling stations in the French capital where ISIS killed 130 people on Nov 13, the worst attacks since World War II.
The FN was tipped to lead in as many as six out of 13 regions after the first round. Voter participation among the 44.6 million people eligible to take part stood at 16.27 per cent at midday, marginally higher than five years ago.
"We hope to have as big a lead as possible so the momentum is the strongest possible," NF leader Marine Le Pen told Reuters TV after voting in the party's northern stronghold of Henin-Beaumont. "I trust the voters because they have seen us work... and that's why they are moving towards us."
After the Nov 13 attacks, we saw a clear increase in support for the National Front. Everything is adding up for (it) to make an unprecedented score.
IFOP POLLSTER ANALYST JEROME FOURQUET, on the expected wins for the far-right party in local elections.
Like other anti-immigration, anti-Europe parties across the continent, the FN is likely to gain from worries over the refugee crisis to win at least one region, and possibly more, in a conclusive run-off on Dec 13, opinion polls show.
Even winning one regional council would be a major victory for the FN, which has never had control of such constituencies.
"After the Nov 13 attacks, we saw a clear increase in support for the National Front," Ifop pollster analyst Jerome Fourquet said.
The vote may reshape the political landscape, making the 2017 presidential polls a three-way race after decades of domination by the Socialists and conservatives.
The ruling Socialists, who control most regions, are set to lose most councils to either former president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives or the FN, despite a boost in President Francois Hollande's popularity ratings from his handling of the attacks.
Mr Sarkozy, who just a few weeks ago was hoping for a landslide victory that would boost his chances for 2017, faces a smaller win than expected for his Republicans because of the FN's growing popularity, polls show.
The key question will be whether the Socialists, seen coming third behind the FN and the Republicans in regions which the far-right could win on Dec 13, will pull out of the race to try to keep the FN out of power.
The two areas where the FN is most likely to win are in Nord-Pas- de-Calais in the north, where Ms Le Pen is a favourite, and in the south-east, where her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen is a leading contender.
"This is a bad sign, because the National Front is becoming little by little more legitimate," said Mr Alain Alpern, a former Green and Socialist party local councillor in Henin-Beaumont. "People don't realise what is in store for them."
Long content with attracting protest votes, the FN has changed strategy since Ms Le Pen took over from her father Jean-Marie in 2011, seeking to build a base of locally elected officials to target the top levels of power.
Voter turnout yesterday and on Dec 13 will also be key in regional polls that are usually spurned by about half the electorate.