Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front collapsed in French regional elections Sunday after dominating the first round of voting, pollsters projected. The conservatives appeared to have surged against the governing Socialists, with the far right relegated to its traditional third place in the polls.
Le Pen had been riding high after extremist attacks and an unprecedented wave of migration into Europe, and the party came out on top in six of France's 13 newly drawn regions in the first-round vote a week ago. But projections by France's major polling firms suggested the party lost in all of the regions Sunday, including decisive losses for both Le Pen and her popular niece.
"Here we stopped the progression of the National Front," said conservative Xavier Bertrand, who was projected to beat Le Pen in the Nord-Pas de Calais region.
Le Pen supporters in a hall in the gritty northern town of Henin-Beaumont booed his image on a big screen as he spoke. The atmosphere was grim, in stark contrast to a week earlier when Le Pen won the first round.
Le Pen struck an upbeat tone despite the rout, pledging to keep fighting to expand support for her party. She said she would in the coming weeks "rally all the French, of all origins, who want to join us."
"Nothing will stop us," she told cheering supporters.
Ipsos, Ifop and TNS-Sofres-One Point projected that Le Pen won around 42 percent compared with Bertrand's 57 percent. Le Pen's niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, was projected to win about 45 percent in the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, compared with about 55 percent for Conservative Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi.
The Socialists pulled their candidates out of both races and turnout rose sharply from the first round, suggesting that many voters had cast ballots to prevent the once-pariah National Front from gaining power.
The big winners Sunday appeared to be the conservative Republican party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. They won about 40 percent of the nationwide vote, with the Socialists in a distant second at 30 percent and the National Front at about 28 percent, according to TNS-Sofres-One Point. In the first round, the National Front was on top with about 40 percent.
The polling agencies base their projections on actual vote count in select constituencies. Official results were expected early Monday.
Turnout figures were 7 percent higher than for the previous regional elections in 2010, with 50.4 percent of those eligible to vote casting ballots by 5 p.m. (1600 GMT), three hours before polls were to close in big cities, according to the Interior Ministry. The second-round turnout at the same time five years ago was 43.4 percent.
The French, more than many other nations, have a very defined value system and fear that allowing a party associated with extremism to take power would damage their sense of identity.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that the far right remains a "danger" despite the defeat, and urged his country to rally together against extremism.
"France in moments of truth has always taken refuge in its real values," Valls said.
The National Front has racked up political victories in local elections in recent years, but winning control of any region would have been an unprecedented boost for the party — and especially for Le Pen's hopes for the presidency in 2017.
Indeed, the day kicked off the unofficial election season as politicians from all parties cast Sunday's results in terms of their presidential ambitions.
Chris den Hond in Henin-Beaumont contributed.
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