France’s far-right National Front has failed to win a single region in Sunday’s elections, forcing leader Marine Le Pen to abandon her bid to become president in 2017.
Ms Le Pen had hoped to make a dramatic breakthrough at the polls by taking advantage of the nation’s heightened fear of uncontrolled immigration and terrorism, following the Paris attacks that left 130 people dead.
But instead she was left with only the ‘total eradication’ of the left to celebrate, the result of a last-minute tactical voting drive to keep the far-right out of power
Despite the National Front’s loss, France’s political leaders warned that action must be taken in order to prevent its rise in the future.
Ms Le Pen pledged to keep fighting to expand voter support for the National Front (FN), choosing to take their victory in the first round as a positive sign.
She said that in the weeks ahead she will ‘rally all the French, of all origins, who want to take part with us’.
‘Nothing can stop us now ’ she announced, to cheering supporters. ‘Election after election, the rise of the nationalist tide is inescapable’
She thanked her ‘patriotic voters’, and added: ‘Congratulations, too, for having thrown off the indecent slogans, the campaigns of calumny of defamation that were decided upon in the gilded palaces of the Republic.’
She also celebrated the ‘total eradication’ of the left–President Hollande’s Socialists–which had controlled all but one of France’s regions before this vote but lost several.
The Socialists pulled their candidates out of the race before the second round in two of the FN’s key regions, encouraging their voters to instead cast their ballots for Republican candidates to keep out the FN.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed pride in his right-wing Republican’s electoral comeback in Sunday’s elections, but warned that his party should take heed of the high support for the anti-immigration FN in the first round.
‘We are proud…of the results,’ he told supporters.
But he added: ‘We must now take the time to debate the fundamentals of great questions that are anguishing the French.’
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also said that the anti-immigrant party’s high score should force the government to listen.
‘Tonight, there is no place for relief or triumphalism,’ Mr Valls said, speaking on Sunday. ‘The danger posed by the far-right has not gone away, far from it.’
Exit polls indicated that both Marine Le Pen and her 26-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen lost in their regions, following the Socialists’ anti-FN drive.
Republican candidate Xavier Bertrand beat Marine Le Pen in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardia region with 57.5 per cent of the vote compared to her 42.5 per cent, according to the Ifop Fiducial poll.
Meanwhile, Marion took 45 per cent in the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, according to exit polls, compared to the Republican Christian Estrosi’s 55 per cent.
Marion had been projected as the ‘poster girl’ for the FN and the natural successor to her grandfather Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the FN from its foundation in 1972 until 2011.
The result will come as a huge blow for Ms Le Pen, who had hoped to use the regional elections as a springboard for her 2017 presidential bid.
Overall, out of 13 regions, the Republicans and their conservative allies have won seven and the ruling Socialists and their allies five, with Corsica going to Corsican nationalists.
Mr Bertrand, who beat Marine Le Pen in her home region, thanked leftist voters for supporting him and keeping the anti-immigrant FN from power.
‘Here the French gave a lesson of rallying together, courage,’ he said, after the results emerged.
‘Here we stopped the progression of the National Front,’ he said, to the sound of boos from Ms Le Pen’s supporters.
The battle to keep Marine Le Pen’s party out of power dramatically drove up Sunday’s turnout.
Turnout figures were 7 per cent higher than for the previous regional elections in 2010, with 50.4 per cent of those eligible to vote casting ballots by 5pm (4pm GMT), three hours before polls closed in big cities.
The second-round turnout at the same time five years ago was 43.4 per cent.
Candidates battled to the last minute to lure out the nearly 50 per cent who failed to vote in the December 6 first round, because their votes were vital.
France’s FN accused tactical voters seeking to block its path to power in two key regions of ‘intellectual terrorism’.
The far-right party was focusing on the link between uncontrolled immigration and terrorism as it tried to secure a launchpad for its leader, Marine Le Pen, to become president in 2017.
They won six of 13 regions in last weekend’s first round, benefitting from security fears in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13.
But the governing Socialist Party–which came just third in the first round–withdrew its candidates from two key regions and urged supporters to back former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative Republicans.
This will likely have played a key role in Marine’s loss tonight, in the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardia region.
The area includes the port of Calais, where up to 5,000 migrants are currently sleeping rough as they try to get to Britain, where they will claim asylum or disappear into the black economy.
But the Socialists feared that some of their supporters might stay home rather than go and vote for the party of Sarkozy, who is widely despised by the left.
The question of who would take final victory in this crucial election is one that split the French population going into the voting on Sunday.
‘For me, she is going to win,’ said voter Evelyne Risselin in Le Pen’s electoral home base Henin-Beaumont.
‘Maybe it will make all those politicians stop and think.’
Political analyst Joel Gombin, a specialist on the far-right, said: ‘The only thing that is certain is that it will be a very tight race.’
Marine Le Pen cast her ballot in the northern city of Henin-Beaumont, one of 11 run by the FN.
‘Voters should not be treated like children, nor be terrorised,’ Ms Le Pen told reporters after casting her vote.
The far-right leader denounced ‘this giant campaign of insults, slander, fear’ by her rivals during a bitter campaign.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called the FN a ‘scam’ that ‘fools the French’ and a divisive party that could ‘lead to civil war’.
President Francois Hollande cast his vote early this morning, urging fellow Socialists to do everything possible to keep the FN out of power.
The run-offs were seen as a testing ground for all three front-runners for the 2017 presidential elections, the Socialists’ Hollande, ex-president Sarkozy and Le Pen.
The FN has never managed any constituency larger than a few small and medium-sized towns, and winning a region would have been an enormous boost to Le Pen’s presidential bid.
But despite efforts by Marine to soften the party’s image, it is still associated with its racist and anti-Semitic roots.
Marine said the tactical voting was ‘undemocratic’ and accused opponents of ‘intellectual terrorism’ in seeking to block her party’s path to power.
She has threatened to sue the government over the situation in Calais, adding that she will ‘make the government’s life a misery, every day, every week’.
The FN technically became the most popular party in France last week, winning 28 per cent of the nationwide vote, one point ahead of the Republicans and their electoral allies.
But commentators have argued that this was a protest vote against the disastrous economic performance of the Socialists, and the weak opposition led by Mr Sarkozy.
It has topped EU and local polls for two years, bolstering Ms Le Pen’s claim that it is now ‘the first party of France’.
It controls at least 10 towns and Ms Le Pen has reaped the rewards of her efforts to ‘de-demonise’ the party bequeathed by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The FN has been criticised for its xenophobic agenda, and particularly its stigmatising of immigrants and some five million Muslims who are French citizens.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the FN wanted to return France to the ‘wars of religion’, and should be stopped at all costs.
Even Mr Sarkozy, who is well known for his equally reactionary views on immigration and Islam, said the FN ‘would create chaos’ if it was given control of a region.