Projections: French far right collapses in regional runoffs

Posted at 5:29 PM, Dec 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-13 17:29:56-05

PARIS (AP) — Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front collapsed in French regional elections Sunday, failing to take a single region after dominating the first round of voting, pollsters projected. The conservatives surged against the governing Socialists, changing the political map of France.

The failure of the National Front to gain any of the six regions where it was leading didn't stop the anti-immigration party from looking to the 2017 presidential election — Le Pen's ultimate goal.

Le Pen had been riding high after extremist attacks and an unprecedented wave of migration into Europe, and the party came out on top in the voting in France's 13 newly drawn regions in the first round a week ago. But projections by France's major polling firms suggested the party lost in all of the regions Sunday, including decisive losses for both Le Pen and her popular niece.

"Here we stopped the progression of the National Front," said conservative Xavier Bertrand, who was projected to beat Le Pen in the Nord-Pas de Calais region.

Le Pen supporters in a hall in the gritty northern town of Henin-Beaumont booed his image on a big screen as he spoke. The atmosphere was grim, in stark contrast to a week earlier when Le Pen won more than 40 percent of the vote — and was more than 15 points ahead of Bertrand.

Le Pen struck an upbeat tone despite the rout, pledging to keep fighting to expand support for her party. She said she would in the coming weeks "rally all the French, of all origins, who want to join us."

"Nothing will stop us," she told cheering supporters.

Ipsos, Ifop and TNS-Sofres-OnePoint projected that Le Pen won around 42 percent compared with Bertrand's 57 percent. Le Pen's niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, was projected to win about 45 percent in the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, compared with about 55 percent for Conservative Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi.

Partial results from the Interior Ministry showed the conservative Republicans in the lead in six regions, and the Socialists in five. The results were based on the count of between 71 percent and 100 percent of the votes in each region.

No results were available Sunday night for the race in the Paris region. Polling agency projections showed the Republican candidate won.

The winner in Corsica wasn't affiliated with a major party. Final official results were expected Monday.

The Socialists pulled their candidates out of both races and turnout rose sharply from the first round, suggesting that many voters had cast ballots to prevent the once-pariah National Front from gaining power.

Le Pen denounced the "campaign of calumny decided in the palaces of the (French) Republic," a reference to fear tactics by rivals, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls who warned said the National Front could lead the nation into "civil war."

The big winners Sunday appeared to be the conservative Republican party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. They won about 41 percent of the nationwide vote, with the Socialists in a distant second at 31 percent and the National Front at about 28 percent, according to TNS-Sofres-OnePoint. In the first round, the National Front was on top with about 40 percent.

The polling agencies base their projections on actual vote count in select constituencies. Official results were expected early Monday.

Turnout figures were 7 percent higher than for the previous regional elections in 2010, with 50.4 percent of those eligible to vote casting ballots by 5 p.m. (1600 GMT), three hours before polls were to close in big cities, according to the Interior Ministry. The figures weren't updated. The second-round turnout at the same time five years ago was 43. 4 percent.

In the past, the National Front has performed well in first-round votes but failed to carry through in the final round. That reflects a fear of allowing a party associated with extremism to take power.

Despite its loss, the National Front sent a message to the French.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that the far right remains a "danger" despite the defeat, and urged his country to rally together against extremism.

"France in moments of truth has always taken refuge in its real values," Valls said.

The National Front has racked up political victories in local elections in recent years, but winning control of any region would have been an unprecedented boost for the party ahead of presidential elections in 18 months.

Still, politicians on the left and right said mainstream parties must reassess their priorities.

"We can no longer continue like this. We must act," Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis told leftist ranks.

Indeed, the day kicked off the unofficial election season as politicians from all parties cast Sunday's results in terms of their presidential ambitions.