French voters go to the polls as Far Right expected to make large gains
French voters are casting ballots for regional leaders in an unusually tense security climate, expected to favour conservative and far right candidates and strike a new blow against the governing Socialists.
Islamic State-inspired attacks on Paris last month and a Europe-wide migrant crisis this year have shaken up France's political landscape.
Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front is hoping the two-round voting that starts today will consolidate political gains she has made in recent years - and strengthen its legitimacy as she prepares to seek the presidency in 2017.
The unpopular Socialist president, Francois Hollande, has seen his approval ratings jump since the Paris attacks, as he intensified French air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq and ordered a state of emergency at home. But his party, which currently runs nearly all of France's regions, has seen its electoral support shrivel in recent years amid economic disappointment.
Voters are choosing leadership for the country's 13 newly redrawn regions in elections that go to a second round on December 13.
Le Pen is campaigning to run the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, which includes the port city of Calais, a flashpoint in Europe's migrant drama. Polls suggest she could win.
Her young niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, appears to be on even stronger footing in her race to lead the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, including the French Riviera and part of the Alps.
A win for either would be unprecedented in France, for a party long seen as a pariah.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the conservative-leaning national business lobby issued a public appeal this week to stop the National Front's march toward victory. Le Pen has worked to undo its image as an anti-Semitic party under father and co-founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and has lured in new followers from the left, the traditional right and youth.
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and the exploits of IS, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, have bolstered the discourse of the National Front. It denounces Europe's open borders, what it calls the "migratory submersion" and what it claims is the corrupting influence of Islam on French civilisation.