The far-right National Front failed to win any region in the second round of France's local elections according to exit polls. By mid-afternoon voter turnout was seven percentage points higher than for the first round.
French voters went to the polls on Sunday with the anti-immigration National Front (FN) hoping to clinch what would be an unparalleled success for the once-fringe political party. Riding a wave of fear after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Marine Le Pen's nationalists emerged as the frontrunner in the first round of voting last week.
Turnout stood at 50.54 percent at 5 pm local time (1600 UTC). That was seven percentage points higher than at the same time in the first round, when full-day turnout was 49.91 percent.
The FN managed to come out on top in six of France's thirteen regions, with the Socialists of President Francois Hollande left in third place, which is particularly dismal after controlling all but one region since the last elections in 2010. The Republicans, led by former leader Nicolas Sarkozy, made an impressive showing in second place and were considered likely to achieve big gains on Sunday.
FN unlikely to repeat success
Polls suggest that FN may struggle to turn last week's success into a resounding victory, but controlling even a single region would be a huge boon to the far-right wingers. Le Pen herself faces a tight race in the northern region of Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie, where she is competing against conservative ex-Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand.
Bertrand and Le Pen ran a particularly vitriolic campaign, with the FN leader calling her challenger "the minister of unemployment," and Bertrand firing back that she was "the candidate of permanent confrontation."
Le Pen's niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, also did quite well in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, and now faces the conservative mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, in Sunday's run-off.
The almost 50 percent of eligible voters who did not go to the polls during the first round on December 6 could hold the key to the final outcome, and all parties have been heavily focused on drawing them out to ballot boxes.
One tactic employed by the other parties has been to scare voters about the possibility of a positive outcome for the FN. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls told voters during a radio interview to beware the FN's "scam" that "fools the French."
es/rc (AP, AFP)