French far-right on brink of power in regions, Le Pen boosted

AFP , Monday 7 Dec 2015

France's far-right National Front (FN) stood Monday on the brink of power in several regions after a historically strong showing in the first round of elections, boosting its leader Marine Le Pen's bid to become president in 2017.

The anti-immigration party finished ahead in six of the 13 regions in Sunday's voting, from the economically depressed north where Le Pen is standing, to the sun-drenched south where her 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen is in pole position.

President Francois Hollande's Socialists called on voters to think tactically in next Sunday's second round in a bid to prevent the FN from taking power at regional level for the first time ever.

Le Pen said her party now "embodied the alternative choice".

"French people have had enough -- in one election after another, they have shown their confidence in the National Front," she said.

The main parties on the right and left now face difficult decisions on whether to strike an agreement to try to block the FN.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the centre-right Republicans, ruled out a tactical alliance, but the ruling Socialist Party said it would withdraw some candidates to allow the centre-right candidate to garner more votes against the FN.

Some Socialists have refused to give in without a fight.

"Rather than withdrawing, we need to confront them," said Jean-Pierre Masseret, despite finishing a distant third in the eastern Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine region.

Alain Juppe, a former prime minister who is a leading figure in the Republicans, admitted his party had failed to explain to voters that the FN "cannot deliver any credible solutions" to their concerns over unemployment.

The FN has been steadily gaining traction in France over the past few years as Le Pen has maintained its strident nationalism, while purging some of the party's more extreme elements.

Le Pen and her telegenic niece broke the symbolic 40-percent barrier in their respective regions of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, which includes the cities of Marseille and Nice.

The performance shattered previous records for the party as they tapped into voter anger over a stagnant economy and fears linked to the influx of migrants into Europe.

The attacks by jihadist gunmen on Paris last month in which 130 people died have also played into the hands of the FN, which has long claimed that extremists could be slipping into Europe among the migrants.

The FN nationally took almost 28 percent of the vote, while the right-wing grouping including Sarkozy's party were on nearly 27 percent, and the Socialists and their allies garnered 23 percent.

Any party which secures 10 percent backing in the first round can field candidates next Sunday.

Taking control of several regions would not only be a first for the FN, it would also boost Le Pen's presidential bid in 2017.

For a year now, polls have shown she would be the most popular choice in the first round of a presidential election.

Her father and the co-founder of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen, rocked the French establishment by reaching the second round of the 2002 presidential election, but was trounced as voters rallied behind Jacques Chirac to keep the far right out of power.

Hollande has seen his personal ratings surge to a three-year high on the back of his hardline approach to security since the Paris carnage, but his party is being punished for a stubbornly high jobless total of around three million.

The FN's anti-EU and anti-immigrant narrative has been a lightning rod for many voters who have lost faith in mainstream parties.

Its repeated linking of immigration with terrorism has also helped it climb in the polls since the gun and suicide bombing assaults in Paris.

When it emerged that at least two of the attackers had entered Europe posing as migrants, the party aggressively pushed a message of "we told you so".

France's chief rabbi, Haim Korsia, called for a "civic uprising" of voters in the second round "to breathe life into democracy... in these particularly troubled times for the nation".

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