Marine Le Pen’s National Front set for historic result in poll

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France's far-right National Front party appeared on course for a historic victory in the first round of regional elections on Sunday, winning more than 30 per cent of the vote and delivering a stunning blow to the country's traditional parties.

In the first test of public opinion since the November 13 terrorist attacks, the anti-immigration party of Marine Le Pen looked set to notch up its best result since it was founded in 1972.

An early, and partial, official count suggested the FN was ahead in six of the country's 13 regions. Projections suggest the result, if confirmed, could be sufficient to win up to four regions in the second round on Sunday.

Ms Le Pen, described the result as "magnificent", adding that it showed that the FN was now "without contest the first party of France".

She was leading as FN candidate in the northern region of France with more than 40 per cent of the vote while Marion Marechal-Le Pen, her niece, was also in the lead with more than 40 per cent of the vote in the south-eastern region of the country.

Victory in even just one of France's 13 regions — definitive results will be known after next Sunday's second-round vote — would be a first for the FN, helping to build momentum as it looks to the 2017 presidential contest, in which Ms Le Pen intends to run.

The latest result adds to a string of strong election performances over the past two years as voters grow weary of weak economic growth and high unemployment and, since this year's attacks, have increasing concerns about security.

James Shields, professor of French politics at Aston University said: "These results are a shock but they shouldn't be a surprise.

"What Marine Le Pen wants above all is a chance to show that her party can govern more than a medium-sized town. For that, a region with several million inhabitants offers a perfect testing-ground, giving her party time to deliver some results before the presidential and legislative elections of 2017."

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Former president Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right Republicans party and allies were leading in four regions and had a national count of 27.4 per cent, according to the partial count.

Speaking on Sunday evening before the final tally came in, Mr Sarkozy ruled out any alliance with the left in next week's second round of voting — a possibility that has been suggested as a way of limiting the gains of the FN.

He said: "We must hear and understand the profound exasperation of the French people."

President François Hollande's Socialists and leftwing allies were ahead in only three regions with just 22.7 per cent of the vote — a crushing result for a political bloc that, at present, holds all but one of the regions.

The election will decide the make-up of regional governments, which have power over issues such as local transport, airports, ports and some schools.

The result is set to provide a sense of the national political mood barely 18 months before the presidential election — and just three weeks after Islamist terrorists launched attacks on Paris and its outskirts, killing 130 people and injuring at least 350.

Voting took place amid tightened security. About 44m 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 44m people eligible had cast their votes, according to France's interior ministry.

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.

Mr Hollande has seen his popularity rise from record lows since the attacks. But a recent Ipsos/Steria survey suggested that Ms Le Pen's FN could outperform France's traditional parties .

Sunday's result looks set to build on the party's performance at last year's municipal elections, its best result since 1995. A month later, the FN swept to victory in the European parliamentary elections, winning almost a quarter of the vote.

In the months since then, some opinion polls have suggested that Ms Le Pen could win the first round of a presidential election — though they also said that she would be unlikely to win a second.

Founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, the FN has long been associated with anti-Semitism. As recently as April this year, Mr Le Pen, father of Marine, sparked a family feud as he defended a past comment that Nazi gas chambers were "a detail" of history.

But Ms Le Pen, the party's leader since 2011, has tried to "detoxify" the FN's image and to bring it more into the mainstream. As part of that process, she has started to push other policies such as abandoning the euro in favour of the franc and giving the state an even bigger role as a promoter — and protector — of national industry.

Those ideas have gone down well in a country where economic growth has remained sluggish in recent years, and where unemployment is at record highs. The FN's popularity has soared in the north of the country, an industrial region particularly affected by France's economic plight.

The FN's success will undoubtedly spark speculation over alliances between he main parties in next week's second round to limit Ms Le Pen's success.

In spite of Mr Sarkozy's remarks, uniting may be the only way to damp the electoral chances of Ms Le Pen and her party. Yet there are no guarantees that doing so would work. And it may even play into her hands, furnishing Ms Le Pen's long-held argument that France's left and right are part of the same problem.