France election: Front National fails to win a single region in second round of voting – but Marine Le Pen insists she's still on course for presidency

Moderate French voters delivered a shock election blow to Marine Le Pen’s Front National last night, but as John Lichfield reports from Paris, the far-right leader is still defiantly talking about the presidency

The far right Front National (FN) was unexpectedly vanquished in all parts of France last night after disgruntled moderate voters surged back to the polls in the second round of regional elections.

In a nationwide vote watched with anxiety all over Europe, Marine Le Pen’s deodorised far-right party failed to build on its triumphs in the first round on the previous Sunday, when it had topped the poll in six of the 12 newly drawn regions of mainland France.

The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, hailed the result as a “victory for the Republic” and the “values of fraternity, common sense and togetherness” which had always triumphed in the “darkest moments of our country’s history”.

The FN candidates – including Ms Le Pen herself in the Calais-Lille-Amiens area in the north, and her 26-year-old niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen in the south-east – were heavily defeated by a combination of left-wing tactical voting and an avalanche of 3.5 million previous non-voters who returned to the polling booths yesterday.

The result was a stinging disappointment for Ms Le Pen, 47, who had hoped to build on regional triumphs to make an assault on the Elysée Palace in 2017.

All the same, the FN appeared to have amassed around seven million votes nationwide – breaking its record of 6.4 million set in the 2012 presidential election. Despite its failure to win regional power, Ms Le Pen’s party has nonetheless established itself over the two rounds as a still rising force, which threatens to displace the centre-right as one of the two contending political forces in France

Le Pen remained upbeat even after the news of her party's failure came in (AFP)

Last night she insisted that the result was a “formidable victory” that put her on course to win the presidency in 18 months’ time. “This election has shown that there are only two forces in the country,” she said. “The forces of globalisation which want to sink France in some kind of internationalist mess, and the forces of patriotism and national identity.”  

The elections were held under the shadow of the jihadist attacks in Paris a month ago in which 130 people were murdered. The campaign was also fought against the background of record unemployment, a stuttering economy, spending cuts and timid market-opening reforms imposed by an unpopular Socialist government. 

The sharp international and domestic reaction to the first-round results – including a warning by Mr Valls that the rise of the FN could lead to “civil war” in France – mobilised hundreds of thousands first-round abstainers. The turn-out shot up from around 50 per cent in the first round to more than 59 per cent in the second, and was especially high in the three populous regions that the FN had hoped to win

The ruling Socialists committed electoral hari-kiri in two big regions, in the north and east, in a tactical move to keep out the Front National. By withdrawing all their candidates, they permitted left-wing voters to switch to the centre-right and “bar” the far right. 

Early estimates showed that Ms Le Pen had been heavily defeated in the Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardy region, which she has made her political fiefdom. She took around 42 per cent of the vote – not much advance on her first round score of just over 40 per cent. Her centre-right opponent, Xavier Bertrand, a former health minister, scored 58 per cent.

In the Marseilles-Nice region in the south, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen was crushed by a decision by the Socialists to withdraw in favour of the centre-right candidate, Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice. Early counting suggested that he had defeated her by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

In the north-east of France – a sprawling region covering Alsace-Lorraine, Champagne and the Ardennes – the local Socialist leader had refused to withdraw. 

Nonetheless, an increased turn-out and tactical voting by many left-wingers gave the victory to the centre-right candidate, by 46 per cent to 37 per cent for the FN, with 16 per cent for the Socialists.

Mr Sarkozy’s centre-right party, Les Républicains, refused to withdraw in the deep south – Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrenees – where the broad left had appeared better placed to defeat the FN.

In the event, the Socialist candidate received enough hard-left and Green votes yesterday to keep the far-right candidate – Louis Aliot, the FN vice-president and Marine Le Pen’s partner  – at bay.

The FN came first in three other regions last week but lost them all yesterday, because of the higher turn-out and because the mainstream parties of centre-left or centre-right harvested votes from smaller parties eliminated last week.

The centre-right Républicains, led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, looked on course last night to win seven or eight regions and the Socialists four or five. Mr Sarkozy claimed this as a victory but many of his own party barons remain far from convinced. Three of the centre-right victories came in areas that would have fallen to the FN without tactical switches by the left. 

The elections were fought in 12 new “super-regions” created last year to try to give French regional government similar clout to Germany’s “Lander”. There were also elections yesterday in Corsica and in the French départements overseas.

Marine Le Pen still has a powerful base on which to build but these figures suggest that the Front National remains far short of winning the 50 per cent national majority that she needs to become Presidente Le Pen in 2017.

The FN has never managed to win a constituency larger than a few small and medium-sized towns, so winning a region would help convince the public that it could be counted on to eventually govern the country.