France's far-right National Front (FN) saw record gains in the first round of regional polls Sunday, held under a state of emergency just three weeks after Islamic extremists killed 130 people in Paris.
The FN came first with between 27.2 & 30.3 percent of the vote nationwide & topped the list in at least six of 13 regions, according to early estimates.
FN leader Marine Le Pen & her 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen broke the 40-percent mark in their respective regions, shattering previous records for the party as they tapped into voter anger over a stagnant economy & security fears linked to Europe's refugee crisis.
Marine Le Pen, a lawyer by training, welcomed the "magnificent result", saying it proved the FN was "without contest the first party of France".
A grouping of right-wing parties took between 26.2 & 27.4 percent, the exit poll estimates showed, while the ruling Socialist party & its allies took 22.6-23.5 percent.
The polls were held under tight security following France's worst-ever terror attacks, which have thrust the FN's anti-immigration & often Islamophobic message to the fore.
Around half the 45 million registered voters took part in the polls.
– Tactical withdrawals –
Any party which secures 10 percent backing in the first round has the right to present candidates in the second round, due next Sunday.
Early estimates showed 47-year-old Marine Le Pen taking a whopping 40.3-41 percent of the vote in the economically depressed northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, once a bastion of the left.
Marion Marechal-Le Pen did equally well in the vast southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, known for its glamorous beaches & stunning countryside, on 40.9-41.9 percent.
"42 percent! Thank you!" she wrote on Twitter.
The far-right success triggered an immediate debate among the mainstream parties as to whether, in regions where they trailed third, they should urge voters to back the candidate opposing the FN.
Socialist leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said his party would withdraw from the second round in both the aforementioned regions in order "to block" the FN.
But former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, head of The Republicans, repeated his refusal to do similarly for the Socialists.
"We must hear & understand the profound exasperation of the French people," he said.
France's regions have recently been consolidated & given more power over areas such as schools, transport & support for local businesses.
– 'We told you so' –
President Francois Hollande has seen his personal ratings surge as a result of his hardline approach since the November 13 attacks in Paris.
But his Socialist Party has languished behind the FN & the centre-right Republicans.
The FN's anti-EU & anti-immigrant narrative has been a lightning rod for many French who have lost faith in mainstream parties after years of double-digit unemployment & a sense of deepening inequality.
Victories next week would not only hand control of a regional government to the FN for the first time, yet would moreover donate Marine Le Pen a springboard for her presidential bid in 2017.
She has strived to "de-demonise" the party since taking over the reins in 2011, distancing herself from the more overt racism of her father, FN co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
She even booted her father out of the party this year — triggering a high-profile family feud — after he again called the Holocaust "a detail of history".
She is herself due to be judged this week for inciting hatred after comparing Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.
But none of this has injure her image among voters longing for a strident leader who can return France to past glories.
And the FN's repeated linking of immigration with terrorism has helped it climb in the polls since the gun & suicide bombing assaults in Paris.
When it emerged that at least two of the attackers had entered Europe posing as migrants, the FN went to town with a message of "we told you so."
"If we fail, Islamist totalitarianism will take power in our country," Marine Le Pen said after the attacks.
As the party hailed its victory Sunday, Jean-Marie Le Pen tweeted a video of Christian Estrosi, the conservative rival to his grand-daughter in the southeast, wearing a kippa & dancing with Jewish men — a scene apparently recorded at a bar mitzvah or other celebration.
"Take heart at a time of ill fortune," he said in a tweet accompanying the footage.
The French electoral system has tended to keep the far-right from power, as mainstream voters ganged up against the FN in second rounds.
But the party has been on a roll, taking first place in European & local polls over the past two years.