After winning more votes than any other party in the the first round of regional elections last week in France, Marine Le Pen's far-right, anti-immigration National Front party failed to win any regions and was kept out of power in the second round of voting on Sunday.
Bolstered by fears about security and immigration in the wake of the attacks in Paris last month that killed 130 people, Le Pen's National Front (FN) had earlier appeared poised for victory on Sunday. But after the FN's early results — the best in the party's history — the Socialist party made a tactical decision to step down and withdraw its candidates from Le Pen's electoral strongholds in northern and southeastern France, urging their supporters to vote for former president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party instead.
Le Pen, who had hoped to use regional power as a springboard to boost her chances in 2017 presidential elections, lost by a huge margin in northern France on Sunday, where she led her party's ticket, attracting 42.8 percent of the votes in the run-off vs 57.2 percent for the conservatives.
In the southeast, another FN target where Le Pen's niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen was the FN's lead candidate, the conservatives scored 53.7 percent and the FN 46.2 percent, official results based on 84 percent of the votes said.
Long content with attracting protest votes, the FN has changed strategy since Le Pen took the party over from her father Jean-Marie in 2011, seeking to build a base of locally elected officials to target the top levels of power.
But while it has been winning more and more votes in each election since then, its isolation in France's politics means it cannot strike the alliances it would need to win major constituencies. So it failed once more on Sunday to turn growing popularity into power.
Le Pen said the result would not discourage the "inexorable rise, election after election, of a national movement" behind her party, insisting that the rise of the far-right was unstoppable.
She celebrated what she described as the "total eradication" of Socialist party representation in the northern and southeastern regions as a result of the tactical vote.
With five regional wins out of 13, the Socialists did less badly than they had feared but it was still a huge defeat. Regional boundaries were redrawn after the 2010 election, in which the Socialists had won 21 out of 22 regions.
Le Pen praised those who had voted for her, saying they had resisted "intimidation, infantilization and manipulation." Tweeting in French on Sunday, Le Pen described the tactical move as "a campaign of slander."
The political maneuvering may have kept power out of the far-right's grasp this time, but Sarkozy said on Sunday that mainstream politicians should still heed the threat posed by the FN's early victories.
"We now have to take the time for in-depth debates about what worries the French, who expect strong and precise answers," he said, citing Europe, unemployment, security and identity issues.
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