France’s far-right National Front (FN) appears to have made big gains in the first round of regional elections, estimates predicted last night.
They showed the FN ahead in at least six of 13 regions in mainland France.
The elections are the first electoral test since last month’s Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed. The centre-right led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to win in most regions at the expense of the governing Socialist Party.
Exit polls from yesterday’s vote predicted that the FN had won between 27-30 per cent of the vote. The polls showed Mr Sarkozy’s Republicans party in second place followed by President Francois Hollande’s governing Socialists.
Yesterday’s first round will be followed by a run-off on 13 December. The election is being closely watched after opinion polls suggested the popularity of the anti-immigration, anti-EU National Front had increased since the attacks on 13 November.
FN leader Marine Le Pen is likely to win in the northern region of Nord-Pas-De-Calais-Picardie, while her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen is a leading contender in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur in the south.
It would be the first time the National Front has captured any of France’s regions. The party is hoping a strong performance will boost Ms Marine Le Pen’s chances for the 2017 presidential election.
Both Mr Sarkozy’s party, The Republicans, and the FN appeared to be heading for about 30 per cent of votes, according to opinion polls.
The government’s response to the Paris attacks has boosted President Francois Hollande’s approval ratings – they have soared more than 30 percentage points to 50 per cent.
However, this surge in personal popularity has so far not translated into greater approval for Mr Hollande’s Socialist Party, which was trailing with about 22 per cent. The election was held under a state of emergency declared after the Paris attacks, which were claimed by Islamic State militants.
On Friday, the Belgian prosecutor’s office said police were seeking two new suspects accused of aiding the fugitive suspect from the Paris attacks Salah Abdeslam, who lived in Belgium.
About 44 million people are eligible to vote. Nevertheless, by midday, turnout was thin, with many of the regions registering less than 20 per cent of those enrolled. By late afternoon, just over 43 per cent of the more than 44 million people eligible had cast their votes, according to France’s interior ministry.
First-time voter Eli Hodara, an 18-year-old Paris student, expressed hope that more young people would turn out. “I think it is important to vote even if one leaves the ballot blank,” she said.
It is the last election before France votes for president in 2017 and a gauge of the country’s political direction.
“It’s an important moment, important for the future of our regions, important also for the future of our country, important with regard to the catastrophic and dramatic events that have hit France,” Le Pen said as she cast her ballot in the northern city of Henin-Beaumont.
Manuel Valls, prime minister, urged people to vote, in particular after November’s terrorist attacks. “We shall overcome, and our weapon is our vote,” he said.