, PARIS, Mar 22 – France’s National Front, one of the most powerful populist far right parties in Europe, eyed strong gains against the ruling socialists of President Francois Hollande in regional elections Sunday.
The election’s 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 National Front 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 said this week.
The FN, as Le Pen’s party is known in French, appeared set to capitalise on anger over France’s lacklustre economy and 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.
That same tactic could be repeated on a bigger scale in the 2017 presidential polls, with both the traditional left and right uniting in a second round against a Le Pen candidacy.
Last year, the FN took first place in European elections and control of 11 town halls.