France's far-right National Front has lost run-offs in regional elections, despite dominating last week's first round. Exit polls show Nicolas Sarkozy's 'Republicains' coming to the fore in tactical voting by socialists.
A tactical call by France's socialists to their voters to block Marine Le Pen's National Front (FN) by voting for Sarkozy's Republicans and center-right allies in two regions delivered wins for the opposition conservatives on Sunday.
The leader of the anti-immigration FN, Le Pen, lost out to the right-wing opposition in the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais Picardie region after the ruling socialist party (PS) pulled out of the race before the second round.
Early estimates showed Marine Le Pen finishing on around 42 percent compared to about 57 percent for her right-wing rival Xavier Bertrand in the economically depressed northern region.
Bertrand, a former labor minister, described the outcome as a "thunderbolt" that had stopped the "progression" of the National Front.
The polling agencies Ipsos, Ifop, TNS-Sofres projected that the opposition conservatives and President Francois Hollande's PS would win control of all of France's 13 regions.
Still a 'danger'
Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that Le Pen's far-right party remained a "danger" despite the FN's apparent rout.
Sarkozy said his party would "refuse all compromise with the extremists" but it must debate questions worrying the French such as unemployment and frustration with European unity - issues on which the anti-immigrant FN had campaigned.
Official results are expected early Monday.
Sunday's turnout at about 50 percent was up significantly from the first round, and seven percent higher than for France's previous regional polls in 2010.
FN defeat in southern stronghold
Le Pen's 26-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen was also defeated by the right-wing grouping in the southern region that includes the Cote d'Azur.
Marechal-Le Pen took 45 percent against the 55 percent for the right-wing's candidate, Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, in the FN's traditional stronghold in the south.
In the eastern region, where President Hollande's PS did not withdraw, the center right won 48.5 percent against the FN's 36.4 percent.
Le Pen defiant
The FN had argued that the political manoeuvring by the main two political parties showed that they were two sides of the same coin and that the far-right offered the only real political alternative.
As results came in, a defiant Le Pen told cheering supporters in northern France that despite her regional loss "nothing will stop us."
Le Pen had striven for victories in the three regions as a FN springboard for France's presidential and general elections in 2017.
Tactic legitimate, says Valls
Prime Minister Valls said he had had "no hesitation" in urging voters to back the Republicans to keep the FN from power as they did in 2002 when voters blocked Le Pen's father Jean-Marie in favor of Jacques Chirac.
The FN had surged in six of 13 regions on December 6 in the first round, taking 28 percent of the vote nationally, ahead of 27 percent for the Republicains and their allies.
The left had controlled most of France's regions before Sunday's vote. They were projected to end up losing several regions.
Governance in France's regions has recently been enlarged to include transport, schooling and local business support.
ipj/jm (AFP, Reuters)