Front National regional elections in France
Supporters of Marion Marechal-Le Pen, French Front National candidate, in AvignonREUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

The French regional elections of Sunday (13 December) may be a barometer of the results in the 2017 Presidential elections, after the ruling Socialists (PS) suffered a drawback and the opposition Republicains party appears splintered, commentators have warned.

The anti-immigration, anti-EU far-right Front National (FN) made record gains in the first round of the ballot on 6 December, coming top in six out of 13 regions and taking 28% of the national vote in the first test of public opinion since the 13 November terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris.

Ruling Socialists: losing ground

The ruling PS is currently in control of all but one French region, but PS Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday (7 December) said the party would use old tactics to block FN successes.

Speaking to TF1 television, Valls called on voters to vote for opposition candidates in the second round of elections on 13 December in a bid to ward off a victory for the FN - leaving three regions for former president Nicolas Sarkozy's Republicains to go head-to-head with the FN.

Le Monde columnist Françoise Fressoz explained the move was "to stay loyal to the Socialist and left tradition which was to say that, when there is a FN threat, we must do everything to prevent it."

She added: "It's a moral position, which has led to some radical positions that will deprive the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the PACA of any Leftist politician."

France Regional elections Manuel Valls speech
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls the day after first round regional elections.REUTERS/Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool

Following the "extremely grave decision", in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA), Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, FN candidates including party leader Marine Le Pen and her 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen will oppose conservative candidates.

Only in the eastern Alsace-Champagne Ardenne-Lorraine region has PS candidate Jean-Pierre Masseret decided to go against his party's instructions and stay in the run, despite coming third in the first round.

Fressoz described the move as a "revolt from Jean-Pierre Masseret". "You can see there is the beginning of an upheaval from local elected officials against the instructions (from the party) that shows their front may not be as solid as it may have been in the past".

FN leader Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, also criticised the PS tactical retreat as "collective suicide", arguing it would deprive the party of any regional councillors for the next six years and mark "the beginning of the disappearance pure and simple of the Socialist Party".

Sarkozy's Republicains showing cracks

Sarkozy's decision to refuse to ask his candidates to "withdraw or merge" to turn the run-offs into duels to keep the FN out, has also highlighted cracks within his own conservative party (previously known as Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)) party. Indeed, a number of his own party representatives have criticised the move.

Columnist Fressoz believes that if the Republicains front "works less and less well it's because it is contested, even at its base".

She added: "We can see this in the right-wing electorate that is mush less partisan of a move towards the left, contrary to the left electorate which is more favourable to a shift towards the right. We can see that both right parties are really struggling to contain the surge of the FN, which will be a huge problem for (the presidential elections of) 2017."

Scores would be settled after the second round, Fressoz claimed. "He has been blamed for making the border very porous between the FN and the right, and many highlight that the FN has picked up momentum, which will play against the Republicains. This is a problem."

Nicolas Sarkozy in French regional elections
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech as he campaigns for the upcoming regional electionsREUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Valls also criticised Sarkozy for his decision to refuse to create an electoral barricade with the PS against the FN.

"I take my responsibilities, it's the big difference between myself and Nicolas Sarkozy," Valls said. "There is no 'either-or'. I call to vote Christian Estrosi (Republicains candidate) against the extreme-right, to vote Xavier Bertrand against the extreme-right, and Philippe Richert against the extreme-right (...) In three regions, because the Left has withdrawn, the choice will be clear. When the essence is at stake, we must know how to be clear."

The Prime Minister added: "The extreme-right divides French people, it wants to throw them against each other. Sunday, we will have to chose between these two visions."

The question in the majority of French people's minds is who can block Le Pen's inexorable rise 18 months before the next presidential poll, if she can already attract 28% of voters?