France's anti-immigration National Front is widely expected to make a strong showing at the first round of regional polls. Support for the party has risen in the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
The first round of regional elections in France on Sunday will be watched closely as a barometer of voter sentiment, with mainstream parties increasingly worried by what they see as a dangerous shift to the right.
The far-right National Front party (FN) under leader Marine Le Pen is currently leading the field in polls, with surveys giving it 30 percent support, slightly ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative Union for a Popular Movement and its coalition partners.
Le Pen, daughter of former longtime FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, is set for victory in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, traditionally a leftist heartland. Her 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen is predicted to be equally dominant in the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur area.
The FN is also likely to be a strong contender in the eastern Alsace-Champagne-Ardennes-Lorraine region, according to polls.
Analysts have predicted that the far-right party could win all three regions in the second round on December 13, unless President Francois Hollande's Socialists and former President Sarkozy's center-right coalition join forces to prevent it.
Leading politicians on both the left and right have called for a massive voter turnout to thwart an FN win.
Capitalizing on fear
A victory would put the FN at the head of a regional government for the first time, and also place Marine Le Pen in a strong position for her planned bid for the presidency in 2017.
Her party, which campaigns on a hardline anti-immigration and sometimes Islamophobic platform, has successfully capitalized on fears of Islamist terrorism in the country following the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed.
Hollande, too, has profited in personal support from the tough policies he has pursued since the attacks, but his Socialists have not reaped the benefits, with the party polling at just 23 percent.
Speaking in a polling station south of Paris, Prime Minister Manuel Valls urged French people to particpate in the election. "I hope many French people will vote, especially after the terrorist attacks," he said, according to AFP news agency. "We shall overcome, and our weapon is our vote."
Le Pen has accused Valls of trying to turn voters against her.
More than 46 million people are eligible to vote on Sunday. Balloting will be taking place under high security following the Paris attacks, with police and soldiers deployed throughout the country.
tj/sms (dpa, AFP)