November 25, 2015 / 9:15 PM / in 2 years

Sarkozy battles far-right in French regional vote

Former president and current head of the Les Republicains political party Nicolas Sarkozy, delivers a speech during a political rally as he campaigns for the upcoming regional elections in Schiltigheim near Strasbourg, France, November 25, 2015.Vincent Kessler

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy rallied conservatives in eastern France on Wednesday, hoping to fend off a strong challenge by the far-right National Front (FN) in looming regional elections.

The FN, boosted by voter concerns about security after militant Islamists killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13, is leading opinion polls in two regions in the north and southeast and running head-to-head with Sarkozy's party in the east.

Winning two regions would be a first for the FN and would boost its leader Marine Le Pen in the long run-up to the 2017 presidential poll. Taking a third out of 13 would spell serious trouble for the Socialists of unpopular President Francois Hollande - and for Sarkozy, sandwiched between the two.

Addressing about 1,000 cheering supporters in a packed hall, Sarkozy echoed Le Pen's criticisms of the European Union, notably its drive to "erase borders" through the Schengen agreement now facing heavy criticism.

"It has succeeded in reviving the old nationalist demons that it was supposed to bar from returning," he said, in a bid to use Le Pen's argument against her. The FN leader was also campaigning in the region on Wednesday, in the Lorraine area.

"There are so many areas where France has retreated too far," he continued. "Our attackers know we are vulnerable."

Campaigning for the two-round voting on Dec. 6 and 13 was suspended after the Paris massacre. Sarkozy's choice of Strasbourg to resume stumping for his conservative Republicans highlights the importance of the race in the eastern region.

The anti-immigration FN has grown steadily since Marine Le Pen took over in 2011 and gave a softer image to the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

THREE CRUCIAL REGIONS

Opinion polls tip her to win in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie, a region with higher-than-average unemployment, a porous border Belgian jihadists crossed to attack Paris and an eyesore camp in Calais for migrants hoping to cross to Britain.

Her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, elected to parliament in Paris in 2012 at the age of 22, has a strong lead in polls in the southeastern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA).

Front deputy leader Florian Philippot is leading in opinion polls for the first round of voting in the Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, whose capital is Strasbourg, but could still be beaten in the runoff by the Republicans candidate.

The major parties are worried about the FN. "It could run a cow as its candidate and it would get the votes," one conservative leader admitted privately.

A leading Socialist in Strasbourg concurred: "People don't listen to our arguments. They say they want to give them a try," he said.

An administrative reform has merged France's 22 metropolitan regions into 13, producing long, combined names that may yet change. Those councils are mainly responsible for regional infrastructure, transport and education.

"All the talk of these past few days, the fact that several of the killers have immigrant backgrounds and the failure of the police to follow people already marked as potential radicals are all favorable to the National Front," political scientist Pascal Perrineau said to explain the party's strong prospects.

"The only thing that's slowing down this trend is that the French are looking for a statesman, someone who reassures them, knows foreign affairs and has government experience," he said. "Marine Le Pen and her entourage are still weak here."

Sarkozy and Hollande have that experience, but neither is taking any chances. Both have adopted some FN positions, such as Sarkozy's opposition to halal meals for Muslims in state schools, and Hollande's clampdown on civil rights after the Paris attacks to give police free hand to search for radical Muslims.

UNPOPULAR HOLLANDE

At the last regional polls in 2010, the Socialists, then in opposition, swept all but one of the 18 regions in metropolitan France then. Polls see heavy losses for them this time around.

Part of that will be blamed on Hollande, the most unpopular president in French polling history. The Socialist leader has enjoyed a seven percentage point spike in support since the Paris attacks, but that still only brought him to 27 percent approval in an Ifop poll published on Sunday.

In their campaigns, FN candidates have stressed national issues such as immigration, security and Europe as well as local concerns, mostly about unemployment running just above France's 10.8 percent October rate in the north and PACA and just below it in the eastern region.

An FN campaign poster in the Paris area shows two photos of the same young woman, on the left, dressed as a football fan with the French flag daubed on her cheeks, and on the right as a Muslim wearing a black niqab covering all but her eyes.

"Pick your suburb," it reads, a reference to the poor outskirts of cities where many French Muslims live, as if the regional vote were a choice between French and foreigners.

Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac, Jean-Francois Rosnoblet, Sophie Louet, Emmanuel Jarry and Tom Heneghan; Editing by Andrew Callus

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