The Front National has been kept out of power in France as voters turned out in force to deny Marine Le Pen's far-right party any of the country's 13 regions.
Ahead in six regions after last Sunday's first round of voting, the Front National (FN) failed to secure enough votes in yesterday's second round of voting. Instead it was Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right party, Les Republicains, who did best, winning control of seven regions, including the capital. Valérie Percresse's success in Paris means the city is under the right for the first time since 1998.
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The ruling Socialist party, which withdrew candidates in two regions in order to block a FN win, triumphed in five regions, predominantly in the south of the country, although Jean-Yves Le Drian took 51.4 per cent of the vote in Brittany. The 13th region, Corsica, went to the island's Nationalist Party. Turnout figures overall were 58.6 per cent, ten per cent higher than the first round, and 15 per cent above the second round of the 2010 regional election.
Despite the fact that the FN was kept out of power, there was little sense of triumphalism among either Socialists or Republicains. Marine Le Pen's party actually increased its vote from the first round, winning a record 6.8m votes, surpassing the party's previous record of 6.4m in the first round of the 2012 presidential election. In taking 27 per cent of the overall vote in yesterday's second round, the FN is indisputably a major force in French politics, rather than a protest party as it was often portrayed.
The challenge now for the two main parties is how to combat the rise of the FN between now and the presidential election in 2017. Marine Le Pen, who lost out to Les Republicain's Xavier Bertrand in the Nord-Pas-De-Calais-Picardie region, bristled with defiance yesterday evening. "Nothing can stop us now," she told her supporters. "By tripling our number of councillors, we will be the main opposition force in most of the regions of France."
They've achieved this by portraying themselves as the party of the people, the only one that isn't run by what Le Pen derides as 'the political class'. With political analysts in France predicting that the FN will reach the second-round presidential run-off in 2017 at the expense of either the Socialists or Les Republicains, the next 18 months will be a time of intense campaigning.
"Tonight, there is no place for relief or triumphalism," said Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls, who last week had warned that voting in the FN could lead to a civil war. "The danger posed by the far right has not gone away; far from it."
Nicolas Sarkozy was also muted in his reaction to the results, saying the rise of the FN was a "warning" to the political establishment. He added: "We now have to take the time for in-depth debates about what worries the French, who expect strong and precise answers." Though Sarkozy's party was the biggest winner overall, his leadership has been criticised by many within Les Republicains and he could face a challenge in the coming months from Alain Juppé.
The worries cited by Sarkozy are unemployment, national security and immigration, all of which will be at the heart of the presidential campaign. If there are further terrorist attacks in France, and if unemployment continues to rise, the principal beneficiary is sure to be the FN. Already some political commentators in France are saying the regional results are in fact a positive outcome for the FN ahead of the presidential campaign. They have not won control of any regions, but they have increased their power base throughout their country and become a legitimate alternative to the traditional parties. As Xavier Bertrand acknowledged in his victory speech, for 30 years the political class to which he belongs has told voters it understands their concerns, but nothing has changed. "This is our last chance," he admitted.
Far-right Front National wins opening round of French regional elections
Francois Hollande and his ruling Socialists have been humiliated at the polls by Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National (FN) - and the president of France has no one to blame but his party.
In the first round of voting in the regional elections, FN took 28.2 per cent of the vote, relegating the Socialists to third place on 23.36 per cent, with Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right Les Republicans sandwiched between the two with 27.01 per cent.
The FN are now ahead in six of the 13 regions, with the second round of voting on Sunday. The French electorate have made it clear they no longer trust the Socialists, says the Daily Telegraph.
One TV poll on Sunday night reported that the three issues that drove people to vote for the FN were unemployment, terrorism and delinquency.
Hollande has cast himself as a belligerent Commander-in-Chief since terrorists slaughtered 130 Parisians on the night of November 13, declaring war on Isis and ordering an increase in air strikes against their Syrian strongholds.
It's been a boon for his approval rating, his popularity among the French public increasing in the last month from 20 to 35 per cent, but as Sunday night showed, the President's party is seen as out-of-touch and in thrall to political correctness.
Never was this more apparent that in the row that has erupted over Hollande's declaration in the wake of the Paris attacks that he would seek powers to strip any dual national convicted of terrorism offences of their French citizenship.
For a fortnight, as France gradually recovered from the trauma of the terrorist outrages, Hollande's Socialist Party said nothing. Now they are gnashing their teeth at what their president has proposed.
Last Thursday, Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, said she was "very opposed" to the idea because it was not "part of my values". Her sentiments were echoed 24 hours later by Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, first secretary of the Socialist Party, who said it was "not an idea of the Left".
Although he didn't reveal if he would actively oppose his president if Hollande attempted to push through the measure, Cambadelis said it was a Front National idea. In fact, the idea was first proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy of centre-right Les Republicans when he was in power in 2010.
The timing couldn't have been worse for Hollande. As French Socialists spoke out against the idea of stripping a citizen of his nationality, the Australian parliament passed legislation to do exactly that, reinforcing the view among many French people that the ruling party are putting their ideology before the nation's best interests.
In contrast Le Pen has campaigned on putting France first, and on Sunday night she c called on "all French of all origins" to back the FN in the second round of voting.
"Turn your back on this political class that deceives," she added, a message that has struck a chord with the electorate who increasingly regard the two mainstream parties as elitist and out-of-touch.
The Socialists have not reacted well to their humiliation. Rather than fight the FN on the key issues, Cambadelis has instructed candidates in regions where the left is trailing the right - and a FN victory is more likely - to withdraw from the second round of voting.
By forming what he calls "a barricade", Cambadelis hopes Socialist voters will choose the lesser of two right-wing evils - Sarkozy's Republicans.
Sarkozy, though, will not follow the Socialist strategy. "The verdict of the French voters is clear. It is a message we need to listen to," he said.
He added: "It is a new sign of a profound aspiration of the French people to see things change in this country. They clearly signalled their profound exasperation."
Cambadelis condemned Sarkozy's refusal to join the Socialists in forming 'barricades' to the FN, saying: "The extreme right is threatening many regions.
"Yet, the party that called itself 'Les Républicains' said no to a united front... History will be severe against those who say 'better the extreme right than the left'."
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