Marine Le Pen and the migrant crisis
Marine le Pen\'s National Front Party is expected to do well in the French regional elections REUTERS / Pascal Rossignol

The far-right, anti-immigration National Front party has surged ahead in French regional elections with some opinion polls giving them up to 30% of the vote. It is the first electoral test for Socialist president François Hollande since the attacks in Paris last month which left 130 dead and hundreds more injured.

Leading into the election, the centre-right Republic Party, led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, was expected to win in most regions, at the expense of Hollande's Socialist Party, which is trailing with about 22% of the vote. However, Marine Le Pen's National Front (FN) and the Republicans both appear to be heading for about 30% of votes, according to opinion polls. Sarkozy has, however, ruled out the prospect of partnering with the National Front.

Le Pen is campaigning to run the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, which includes the port city of Calais, where an estimated 5,000 refugees and migrants from countries including Syria, Libya and Eritrea are believed to be living in a camp known as "the Jungle".

Polls suggest she could win and if she does it would be the first time her party has won any of France's regions, which have wide powers over education and economic development and local transport. Assemblies are being elected in the 13 regions of metropolitan France and in four overseas territories.

Rise of the right

As it is the last election before France votes for president in 2017, Le Pen's party is hoping that a strong performance will boost Le Pen's chances in the race to become France's leader.

"It's an important moment, important for the future of our regions, important also for the future of our country, important with regard to the catastrophic and dramatic events that have hit France," Le Pen said as she cast her ballot in the northern city of Henin-Beaumont.

Le Pen's 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen is meanwhile expected to do just as well in the Provence and Cote d'Azur region in the south, which includes the French Riviera and part of the Alps.

Aged just 22 and in her second year as a law student at the Sorbonne, she became the youngest MP in French parliamentary history when she was elected three years ago. She was also backed by her grandfather and Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen to lead the party, which he founded in 1972 and led until he was ousted in 2011.

Appeal against voting NF

Jean-Marie Le Pen was suspended and then expelled from the party earlier this year after he described the gas chambers used in concentration camps during the Holocaust as a "detail" of history.

Faced with the prospect of the National Front doing well Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the conservative-leaning national business lobby issued a public appeal this week to stop people voting for the party. However, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and the recent Paris attacks, appear to have boosted the appeal of the NF's anti-immigration, closed border message among voters.

Although the government's response to the Paris attacks has seen President François Hollande's approval ratings rise by more than 30 percentage points to 50%, the surge in his personal popularity has so far not translated into greater approval for his Socialist Party. The election is being held under a state of emergency which remains in place following the attacks.