France’s far-right National Front (FN) is widely predicted to win control of at least one region for the first time, as the country holds regional elections three weeks after the deadly attacks in Paris.
Both leader Marine Le Pen and her niece were expected to perform strongly in the first round of the poll on Sunday, as they capitalise on their anti-immigration and sometimes Islamophobic message.
Polls opened at 08:00 (07:00 GMT) and will close at 20:00 (19:00 GMT), with some 44 million people eligible to vote.
Ballots are cast under tight security with France in a state of emergency after the attacks on the capital on November 13, in which 130 people were killed.
First projections are expected at 19:00 GMT.
Le Pen is on course to top the poll in the economically depressed Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region in the north, once a bastion of the left.
Her 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, meanwhile, seems to be heading for an equally strong score in the vast southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, which includes beaches thronged by sun-seekers in the summer.
Opinion polls give the FN between 27 percent and 30 percent of the vote in the first round, a similar score to the centre-right Republicans led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande’s Socialists languish
While President Francois Hollande has seen his personal ratings surge as a result of his hardline approach since the Paris attacks, his Socialist party has not enjoyed a similar boost, and is languishing at around 22 percent of the vote.
The FN is also expected to compete for power in the eastern Alsace-Champagne-Ardennes-Lorraine region that borders Belgium and Germany, according to polls by Ipsos and Odoxa.
Analysts predicted the FN could take all three regions in the second round on December 13 – if the traditional parties refuse to join forces against them.
Victory would not only put the party at the head of a regional government for the first time, but would also give Marine Le Pen a springboard for her presidential bid in 2017.
She has made much in her campaign of the so-called “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, where thousands of people have been camped for months trying to reach Britain and northern Europe.
With the FN also locked in a close race for Burgundy and Franche-Comte in the east, leading politicians on the left and right appealed to their supporters to go out and vote on Sunday to head off a historic FN win.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls urged activists at his only election rally on Thursday to “appeal to patriotism” to ensure a massive turnout, with Marine Le Pen accusing him of waging “total war” against her.
But the Republicans’ deputy leader Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet claimed the election battle was far from over.
“Our duty is not to be paralysed by the polls and wait for the inevitable to happen, but to fight and fight till Sunday and prove the polls wrong,” she said. AL JAZEERA