Suspense as French far-right eyes first regional prize
French voters flocked to the polls Sunday as the far-right National Front (FN) looked for a historic win in regional elections that could boost leader Marine Le Pen's bid for the presidency in 2017.
Voting took place under high security with France still under a state of emergency exactly a month on from the jihadist attacks in Paris that claimed 130 lives.
The anti-immigration FN topped the vote in six of 13 regions in the first round of voting on December 6, capitalising on the security fears as well as France's struggling economy and disillusionment with mainstream parties.
But analysts said Sunday's runoff would be close after the ruling Socialist Party urged supporters to vote tactically to thwart the far-right populists.
Polls this week showed both Le Pen and her 26-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen losing in their respective regions, despite both taking over 40 percent in the first round.
The Socialists had pulled their candidates from those regions -- in the economically depressed north and glitzy south coast -- and told their supporters to back former president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative Republicans.
Pollster Jean-Daniel Levy of Harris Interactive said the FN was "almost certain" to win what would be its first ever region while Bruno Jeanbart of OpinionWay said it would win between "zero and five".
Turnout was nearly 50.5 percent at 5:00pm, with three hours left to vote in some areas. That represented a seven-percent rise on the same time in the first round.
"Frankly, I'm voting against the FN in the interests of my family," said Issa Kouyate, a 59-year-old voter of Senegalese origin, as he went to cast his ballot in Marseille, where a high proportion of citizens are of immigrant background.
"There's danger," said Kouyate, describing the FN's 40-percent score in the region's first round as "a time bomb"
- 'Stolen my vote' -
The FN has topped European and local polls over the past two years, bolstering Le Pen's claim that it is now "the first party of France". It controls around a dozen town halls across the country.
But it often struggles in the second round of elections as mainstream voters gang up to keep it from power -- it lost 535 of 538 second-round duels with the Republicans in local elections this year.
The FN argues such moves prove the main parties are two sides of the same coin and many Socialist voters dislike the strategy.
"Since the Socialist Party has pulled out, I feel like they've stolen my vote," said 56-year-old Didier as he voted in the northern city of Lille.
He said he would leave his voting slip blank, though he worried about letting Le Pen win.
"If it's down to me that she wins, then I've done wrong," he said.
The FN took 28 percent of the vote nationally last Sunday, ahead of 27 percent for the Republicans and their allies.
President Francois Hollande's Socialist Party suffered their fourth electoral beating since coming to power in 2012 as voters punished their failure to reduce unemployment, but held up better than expected with 23.5 percent.
Voting in his Correze region, the president was flush with success after a historic climate deal was concluded at UN climate talks just outside Paris on Saturday, and smiled broadly as a well-wisher congratulated him.
- 'De-demonised' party -
Le Pen has reaped the rewards of her efforts to "de-demonise" the party bequeathed by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, but it retains a stridently anti-immigrant edge. Critics accuse it of fomenting Islamophobia.
Her campaign has also exploited anger over the situation in the northern port of Calais, where thousands of migrants are camping in squalid conditions.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he had "no hesitation" in urging voters to back the Republicans to keep the FN from power -- as they did in 2002 when voters switched to Jacques Chirac in a presidential run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Sarkozy, who has been accused of flirting with the FN's ideas on immigration and Islam, said the FN were "people who have never run anything, have no plan, have no self-control, who would create chaos".
France's regions have recently been enlarged and control key areas such as transport, schooling and local business support.
© 2015 AFP