Socialists pull out in bid to halt historic victory for Front National
FRANCE'S Socialist Party yesterday said its candidates would fall on their swords in three regions to try to prevent the far-right Front National (FN) from clinching historic electoral victories next Sunday.
The FN made sweeping gains across France in the first round of regional elections on Sunday, coming top in six out of 13 regions and taking 28pc of the national vote.
By withdrawing from the second round in regions where they came third, the Socialists hope to fend off FN wins by turning the run-offs into a duel with Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative The Republicans party, formerly known as the UMP.
Marine Le Pen, the FN leader, criticised the Socialist tactical retreat as "collective suicide" that would deprive its voters of any regional councillors for the next six years and mark "the beginning of the disappearance pure and simple of the Socialist Party".
With its centrist allies, The Republicans came second on 27pc and was in pole position in only four regions, including Paris.
The ruling Socialists, who are currently in control of all but one French region, came top in just two, mustering just 23.5pc of the national vote. However, they can count on some support from Communist and Green voters in round two.
The elections came as France is under a state of emergency just three weeks after Isil-linked terrorists killed 130 in Paris.
The Socialists have pledged to withdraw their candidate from the Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardy region where they came third to Ms Le Pen. The FN leader came in front on 41pc - well ahead of the mainstream right candidate, Xavier Bertrand.
Nor will the Socialists be fielding a candidate in round two down South in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, where Marion Maréchal Le Pen, Marine's 25-year old niece, clinched a similarly high score. The party is also pulling out its candidate from the eastern Alsace-Champagne Ardenne-Lorraine region. "There is too big of a risk of victory for the National Front for us to keep our candidates in this region," said Bruno Le Roux, the Socialists' parliamentary leader.
After a string of electoral highs, the FN broke another glass ceiling on Sunday, boosted by voters' fears over the Paris attacks, immigration linked to the refugee crisis and record unemployment.
Ms Le Pen slammed the Socialist candidates' withdrawal as "unfair" yesterday.
Mr Sarkozy, on the other hand, has ordered his party's candidates to "neither withdraw nor merge" with the left, leading Jean-Chrisophe Cambadélis, the Socialist leader, to call his party the "final rampart against the extreme right in France".
A row has erupted within Mr Sarkozy's party over whether his decision to take a hard-right line had simply increased the far-right vote or spared his party even further humiliation.
Analysts warn that even without a Socialist candidate in the run-off, the FN is heading for victory in the two northern and southern regions.
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.
After a campaign overshadowed by the refugee crisis and security fears in the wake of the Paris attacks, early estimates suggested the FN had fared even better than expected by coming first in six out of 13 "super-regions" in round one. It won the largest slice of the national vote - around 30pc compared with some 27pc for the right and its allies and around 23pc for the ruling Socialists, prompting Ms Le Pen to declare the FN "without contest the first party of France".
If Ms Le Pen clinches control of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, once a bastion of the left, the regional win would be an electoral first for the FN and put the party in a powerful new position, controlling a region the size of Denmark, with six million inhabitants and a budget of €3.3bn.
It would bolster FN claims to have morphed from protest party to one capable of competent governance on local and national level.
Ms Le Pen has already said she will consider victory as the "foundation stone" for a serious run at the French presidency in 2017.
The final outcome next Sunday has national significance as these are the last elections before for the presidential race.
Marine's niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen (25) did even better with 41pc in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, a vast region of 5.7 million inhabitants.
(©Daily Telegraph London)