France's National Front eyes gains in regional polls
France's National Front, one of the most powerful populist far right parties in Europe, eyed significant gains against President Francois Hollande's ruling socialists in regional elections Sunday.
The party appeared set to capitalise on a high abstention rate, as well as on a search by some voters for radical solutions to France's economic woes.
"I feel confident," Marine Le Pen, the controversial National Front leader said as she cast her vote at a school in northern France.
With turnout at just over 18 percent by midday, Hollande called on the French to vote as he cast his own ballot in central France.
"Today, the (key) issue is abstention," he said.
The elections are being held across 101 "departments", which control issues such as school and welfare budgets. Some 43 million people are eligible to vote.
For the National Front, or FN as it is known in French, it was a chance to punish the Socialists and build up a head of steam for presidential elections in 2017 that some analysts believe could see Le Pen oust the unpopular Hollande.
Earlier this week, Le Pen declared her party would "invade the Elysee (presidential palace)".
On Sunday, she told reporters: "The goal is to show the FN is a great local force, not just one that is able to bring together millions of French in a national election."
The FN has capitalised on anger over France's lacklustre economy, as well as the politically explosive issues of immigration and the integration of Islam into French society.
Opinion polls showed the far right with about 30 percent of the overall vote, close to levels for the conservative UMP led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Ultimately, the UMP was expected to make the biggest gains, benefiting from the likelihood that Socialist voters would make a strategic switch in second-round run-offs on March 29 just to keep the far right out of power.
Sarkozy predicted a "wave" of departments falling to his UMP, while the FN was forecast to gain no more than four departments.
That same tactic could be repeated on a bigger scale in the presidential poll, with the traditional left and right in a marriage of convenience in a second round to block Le Pen's candidacy.
- 'A radical solution' -
Sunday's vote seemed sure to underline Hollande's bleak fortunes.
His Socialists and other parties in the French left were expected to lose about half of the 61 departments they currently control.
Hollande's popularity ratings are at record lows, despite a temporary boost in the wake of the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket, when he was credited for rallying the country.
Last year, the FN took first place in European elections and control of 11 town halls. The regional polls mark another opportunity for the party to expand its once mostly rural base deeper into French society.
"Everyone is suffering here and as soon as you suffer, you want a radical solution," said Patrick Vasseur, a news vendor in the village of Ribement, northern France.
"It's the economy that is boosting the FN, the lack of work, the increase in taxes."
At noon (1100 GMT), voter turnout was at just over 18 percent, some three percent higher than at the same time in 2011, according to the interior ministry.
But the election looked set for a possible mass abstention.
"I won't vote... It's always the same, it's theatre, and things don't change," said 42-year-old Achille, a carpenter living in the northern French city of Lille.
© 2015 AFP