- National Front candidates see breakthrough as `difficult'
- Socialists, Republicans close ranks in some contests
French voters went to the polls Sunday to elect regional leaders in a last reading of nationwide sentiment before presidential balloting in April 2017.
President Francois Hollande, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen are all jockeying for position in the runoff race, which offers them the chance to establish regional bases and vaunt their credentials with an electorate battered by near-record unemployment and concerns over terrorism.
Le Pen aims to build on a first-round result that showed her anti-euro, anti-immigrant party leading in the national vote with prospects to win executive power in three of 13 regions for the first time. Sarkozy needs his party, the Republicans, to blunt her advance and show he has answers to France’s problems, while Hollande faces a judgment on his handling of the attacks that killed 130 in and around Paris last month.
“For many French voters, the stakes have changed,” said Jim Shields, a professor of politics at Aston University in Birmingham, England. “For years, elections have been fought on the question of who could best revitalize France’s ailing economy and bring down unemployment. Now, the paramount question is who can keep the French safe. That shift of priority plays to the advantage of the National Front.”
Even so, as voters cast their ballots in the second-round runoff, Le Pen’s party is hobbled by a lack of allies from which it can draw fresh support. France’s two main parties are even working together in some districts to keep Le Pen out of power.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a Socialist like Hollande, said on Friday that he was “convinced” his party’s supporters would engage in tactical voting to defeat Le Pen.
As of 5 p.m. in Paris, 50.5 percent of registered voters had cast ballots, up 7.5 points on the participation rate at the same time in the first round of voting one week ago.
The latest polling suggests the National Front will fail to take either Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie in the north or Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur in the south, both regions it looked set to win after the last round. The race is too close to call in the east, the party’s third target.
Le Pen now looks to be losing her grip on the northern region that she is contesting personally. A BVA institute survey in Friday’s La Voix du Nord newspaper suggested she’ll lose out to the Republican candidate, Xavier Bertrand, Sarkozy’s former labor minister. Marion Marechal Le Pen, the National Front leader’s niece, is also looking doubtful in the southern region.
Le Pen’s regional candidates themselves are realistic about their chances. Paul Henry, 59, who is running in Picardie in the north of France, said at a rally in Paris on Thursday that he wasn’t counting on becoming a member of the legislature.
“It’s going to be difficult,” he said. “I don’t see the old traditional left, let’s say the miners, voting for the right. But the bourgeois left, the urban left -- the bobos -- they might come out to vote to block the Front. Its very hard to judge what their turnout is going to be, and that’s what will decide it.”