French far right looks for 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 elections' first round got underway at 8:00 am (0700 GMT) across 101 "departments", which control issues such as school and welfare budgets.
For the National Front, Sunday was a chance to punish the Socialists and get up a head of steam for presidential elections in 2017 that some analysts believe could see the party's leader Marine Le Pen oust the unpopular Hollande.
"We'll get stuck into the regions and then we're off to invade the Elysee (presidential palace)," Le Pen declared this week.
The FN, as Le Pen's party is known in French, 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.
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 Socialist voters making 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 2017 presidential polls, with the traditional left and right in a marriage of convenience in a second round to block Le Pen's candidacy.
However, Sunday 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 got credit 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."
© 2015 AFP