French far-right on brink of power in regions

Paris (AFP) - France's far-right National Front (FN) on Monday stood at the gates of power in several regions after record scores in the first round of elections, held just three weeks after the Paris attacks.

Marine Le Pen's party finished top in six of 13 regions on Sunday, from the economically depressed north where she is standing, to the sun-drenched south where her 25-year-old niece is in poll position.

Le Pen on Monday hailed a "magnificent" result and blasted the traditional political elite "at a time when dark clouds are gathering over France, from the economy and from the risk of being submerged by migrants".

After the anti-immigration party's strong showing, the main parties on the right and left must now decide whether to come to an agreement to try to stop the FN from winning control at regional level in next Sunday's second-round run-offs.

The Socialists of President Francois Hollande have already begun withdrawing candidates, but former president Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the centre-right Republicans, ruled out any tactical alliance.

The far-right has been steadily gaining traction in France over the past few years as Le Pen has continued its strident nationalism, while purging some of the party's least savoury elements.

Le Pen, 47, and her telegenic 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen broke the symbolic 40-percent mark in their respective regions of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur.

But the FN also scored big in the eastern region including Alsace on the border of Germany and Belgium.

The showing shattered previous records for the party as they tapped into voter anger over a stagnant economy and fears linked to the influx of migrants into Europe.

- Springboard to president -

The attacks by jihadist gunmen on Paris last month in which 130 people died have also played into the hands of the FN, which has long claimed that extremists could be slipping into Europe among the migrants.

The right-wing grouping including Sarkozy's party took 27 percent of the vote, while the ruling Socialist Party and its allies gained 23.5 percent.

Around half the 45 million registered voters took part.

Any party which secures 10 percent backing in the first round can field candidates next Sunday.

Victories would not only hand control of a regional government to the FN for the first time, but would also give Le Pen a springboard for her presidential bid in 2017.

Her father and co-founder of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen, once made it to the second round of presidential elections in 2002, but was trounced as voters rallied behind Jacques Chirac to keep the far right out of power.

The FN's success on Sunday has triggered an immediate debate on whether the traditional parties should urge voters to back any candidate opposing the far-right in the second round.

Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, a top Socialist Party official, said his party would withdraw from the second round in the regions that Le Pen and her niece were leading in order "to block" the FN.

Le Pen said she was "not worried", but acknowledged the second round "will obviously be a bit less straightforward".

Right-wing daily Le Figaro and the communist L'Humanite both went with "Le Choc" ("Shock") on their front pages Monday, while the left-wing Liberation warned: "It's coming".

President Hollande has seen his personal ratings surge on the back of his hardline approach since the Paris carnage, but his party is being punished for a jobless total of around three million.

The FN's anti-EU and anti-immigrant narrative has been a lightning rod for many voters who have lost faith in mainstream parties.

Its repeated linking of immigration with terrorism has also helped it climb in the polls since the gun and suicide bombing assaults in Paris.

When it emerged that at least two of the attackers had entered Europe posing as migrants, the party aggressively pushed a message of "we told you so".