PARIS – Polling agency projections suggest the far right National Front took the lead in the first round of France's regional elections on Sunday, in a new boost for Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration strategy and a new blow to President Francois Hollande's Socialists.
The agencies Ifop, OpinionWay and Ipsos based their projections on actual vote count in select constituencies. They projected that the National Front won between 27 and 30 percent support nationwide, followed by former President Nicolas Sarkozy's Republicans party and the governing Socialists.
The elections Sunday took place in an unusually tense security climate just over three weeks after deadly attacks on Paris -- a climate expected to favor conservative and far right candidates.
While National Front had significant support Sunday, it's unclear whether the party can translate that into victory in the second round of voting on Dec. 13 for leadership of France's 13 newly drawn regions.
Sarkozy's Republicans party and its allies were projected to come in second place at around 27 percent.
The Socialists, who currently run nearly all of the country's regions, are projected to come in a weak third place, with between 22 and 24 percent.
The Paris attacks on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people and a Europe-wide migrant crisis this year have shaken up France's political landscape.
The National Front is hoping the two-round voting that started Sunday will consolidate political gains she has made in recent years -- and strengthen its legitimacy as she prepares to seek the presidency in 2017.
The unpopular Hollande has seen his approval ratings jump since the Paris attacks, as he intensified French airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq and ordered a state of emergency at home. But his party, which currently runs nearly all of France's regions, has seen its electoral support shrivel as the government has failed to shrink 10 percent joblessness or invigorate the economy.
Many political leaders are urging apathetic voters to cast ballots as a riposte to fundamentalists targeting democracies from France to the U.S.
First-time voter Eli Hodara, an 18-year-old Paris student, expressed hope that more young people would turn out.
"I think it is important to vote even if one leaves the ballot blank," Hodara said.
It is the last election before France votes for president in 2017, and a gauge of the country's political direction.
"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.
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and the exploits of IS, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, have bolstered the discourse of the National Front. It denounces Europe's open borders, what it calls the "migratory submersion" and what it claims is the corrupting influence of Islam on French civilization.
Le Pen is campaigning to run the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, which includes the port city of Calais, a flashpoint in Europe's migrant drama. Polls suggest she could win.
Her young niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, appears to be on even stronger footing in her race to lead the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, including the French Riviera and part of the Alps.
A win for either would be unprecedented in France.
The party was long a pariah, and voters left and right joined together to keep Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen from winning a presidential runoff in 2002. However, Marine Le Pen has worked to undo its image as an anti-Semitic party under father and co-founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and has lured in new followers from the left, the traditional right and among young people.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the conservative-leaning national business lobby issued a public appeal this week to stop the National Front's march toward victory.