No real winner in French elections, presidential race ahead 
A worker empties a ballot box before counting ballots in the regional elections - AP
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PARIS: With no clear-cut victor emerging from France’s regional elections, parties from across the political spectrum now begin unofficial campaigning and jockeying for supremacy before the 2017 presidential race.

The far-right National Front, the front-runner in the first round of the regional vote, was crushed in Sunday’s second round. Despite the defeat, the leader of the anti-immigrant party still has her sights set on the French presidency.

Marine Le Pen hopes to capitalize on fears over Islamic extremism and a surge of migrants into Europe, and on the political horse trading that went on between conservatives and Socialists in the run-up to the regional elections.

The Socialists withdrew their candidates from two regions where Le Pen and her niece were running and asked their supporters to vote for their conservative rival to prevent the National Front from scoring symbolic wins.

This has left the Socialists totally absent from the councils in those two regions. They have also lost the Paris region, which conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse won.

The official results of the regional elections put the conservative party ahead with 40.2 percent of the votes nationwide. The results from Sunday’s vote put the Socialist party in second with 28.9 percent and the far-right National Front in third with 27.1 percent.

The conservatives took control of seven of France’s 13 regions while the Socialist party won in five regions. The winner in Corsica wasn’t affiliated with a major party.

The National Front won its largest number of votes in an election with a total of 6.8 million, better than Le Pen’s performance in the 2012 presidential race. The party has extended its influence with more than 350 councilors on regional councils.

“Of course, Marine Le Pen can win a presidential election,” National Front vice president Florian Philippot said Monday on RTL radio. “We are making progress.” Philippot was defeated Sunday in the eastern Alsace region.

The conservative candidate for the presidential election will be chosen by party supporters in a primary election in November 2016. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is considered one of the favorites, but he’s facing high-profile competitors.

Among them is former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who pledged on Monday to give the French “a real political alternative (…) based on a precise, serious, credible program that would be an agenda of rupture, of radical change.”

France’s two-round presidential election will be held in the spring of 2017. The top two candidates from the first round face off against each other in a runoff. Both conservatives and Socialists already envision Le Pen in the final round.

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