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Monday, December 21, 2015

Thousands march in support of Poland's new government

December 13, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of backers of Poland's ruling conservative party marched in Warsaw on Sunday with the party leader to show their support for its policies amid a growing political conflict.

The march, led by Law and Justice party head Jaroslaw Kaczynski, came a day after tens of thousands of government opponents demonstrated in Warsaw and elsewhere, saying the ruling party and its ally, President Andrzej Duda, are threatening democracy.

The ruling party and the opposition are locked in a conflict over the appointment of new judges to the 15-member Constitutional Tribunal, which has the power to block government legislation. Law and Justice has taken steps to place five judges on the court and secure itself a say on key laws, but the implementation of the steps is meeting legislative obstacles, also on the part of the court itself. Law experts say there is no clear solution to the unprecedented deadlock.

"We want a good tribunal, one that will really protect the constitution, not the one like we have today," Kaczynski said. Kaczynski said during the march that Law and Justice, in power since last month, is aiming for a wide reform of Poland, but the opposition is preventing that.

"We must reorganize Poland and it must be a huge reorganization," Kaczynski said. "But we are denied that right today, even though we won the election." Police estimated that around 35,000 people took part in the march in rainy weather, with some of them coming from other cities.

Thousands opposed to new government march in Poland

December 12, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Tens of thousands of Poles marched in Warsaw and other cities Saturday to protest the role the country's president and its new conservative government have had in swelling political discord.

A new group calling itself the Committee for the Defense of Democracy organized the marches and opposition parties joined in. They argue that President Andrzej Duda and the new government are breaking the constitution with the steps they are taking concerning the appointment of new judges to the Constitutional Tribunal, the nation's top law arbiter.

Duda is an ally of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party that took power last month and is trying to place loyal judges on the Constitutional Court. The increasingly charged clash between the government and the opposition has undermined the court's authority. Law and Justice appears to be seeking to expose weaknesses and inconsistencies in the constitution, which it wants to change. The main opposition party, which lost power last month, seems to be pressing for some way to call an early election.

An estimated 50,000 marchers turned out in Warsaw, chanting "We will defend the constitution!" and "Duda must go!" as they walked downtown from the Constitutional Tribunal building to the Presidential Palace. Similar marches were held in Wroclaw, Lublin, Poznan and Szczecin.

The ruling party is holding a march Sunday in Warsaw to mark the 34th anniversary of martial law, which was imposed by communist authorities against Poland's Solidarity freedom movement.

Poland's lawmakers choose special court's new judges

December 02, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's parliament voted Wednesday to appoint new judges for the constitutional court amid heated exchanges between lawmakers.

In a controversial vote that took hours to complete because of the arguing, the lower house approved five new judges to the 15-member Constitutional Tribunal who had been proposed by the ruling conservative Law and Justice party, which took power last month and dominates the parliament.

The new appointments are to replace five judges chosen in a last-minute move in October by the ruling party at the time, Civic Platform, which also bent the rules to make those appointments. In principle nonpolitical, the tribunal suddenly found itself at the center of a heated political debate over its composition. Its task is to check laws and regulations for adherence with the supreme charter and it can indirectly delay work on legislation proposed by the government.

In the debate, Law and Justice said the October appointments were made in violation of the law and were unconstitutional, while Civic Platform insisted that the new appointments will be a threat to democracy and to the constitution.

Ahead of the vote, Law and Justice lawmaker Stanislaw Piotrowicz accused Civic Platform of starting the whole problem with a "coup" against the tribunal with its moves earlier this year. He said the party wanted to use the tribunal to "block reforms" that Law and Justice has promised to the Poles in its recent electoral campaign.

Adding to the confusion, the tribunal will rule Thursday on the validity of the October appointments. Also, President Andrzej Duda, who won the presidency on a Law and Justice ticket, needs to decide whether to approve the judges voted in on Wednesday.

After the vote, Civic Platform leaders said they will take legal steps to annul the vote. "What we have just witnessed brings shame to Poland's democracy," said former foreign minister Grzegorz Schetyna. "We will not accept it."

The vote, which was planned for midafternoon, was delayed by opposition lawmakers who noisily tapped on their pulpits, chanted "Constitution," and sought recesses. Some sarcastically said that "lawlessness and injustice" were in power.

Law and Justice backers and opponents with national white-and-red flags held two separate noisy rallies before the parliament.

Forced to police Europe-bound migrants, Macedonia struggles

December 07, 2015

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — As hundreds of thousands of migrants flow into Europe, Macedonia finds itself an unwilling bouncer on the continent's outer fringes.

It all starts at Border Checkpoint 59, an aptly drab name for an opening in a fence on a bare, rubbish-strewn field, traversed by double tracks that form the tiny Balkan country's only rail link with Greece, the European entry point for most migrants.

More than half a million people have passed through here this year, beginning their arduous trek through the Balkans to a hoped-for better life in a wealthy European country. Few spend longer in Macedonia than the five-hour trip by train to Serbia. The journey then takes them through Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, to their final destination of Germany or Scandinavia.

But for the past few weeks, many have found Macedonia's gates closed. After countries further north on the Balkan corridor decided to admit only people from designated war zones — Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis — Macedonia was forced to follow suit or play host to thousands of stranded and discontented migrants.

To ease the task of keeping out people of all other nationalities — presumed to be economic migrants — the country is building a three-meter (10-foot) high fence along its southern border with Greece, where most migrants heading for Europe arrive in decrepit boats from Turkey.

So far, the army has erected 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the fence that will eventually stretch for up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) — covering the easiest crossing points on the 200-kilometer (120-mile) border.

Practically all migrants head for checkpoint 59, as it is near the town of Gevgelija, the departure point for the trains that will carry them to Serbia. The crossing is heavily guarded by riot police, who have been kept on their toes for more than a week.

Thousands of excluded migrants from Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia and Congo have been crowding outside the checkpoint, angrily demanding entry, blocking rail freight services and periodically preventing refugees from reaching the crossing.

Last month dozens attacked Macedonian police with stones, enraged by fence-construction work, and the serious injury of a Moroccan youth who was electrocuted while trying to climb onto a train. Another Moroccan died in a similar accident last week, and new clashes also broke out between migrants and refugees, while Greek police used tear gas to clear a group of Iranians who had barricaded themselves outside the checkpoint to prevent refugees from crossing.

Others refused entry by Macedonia turned back to Athens, including Hamza, a 17-year-old from Morocco who gave up after 10 days at the border, defeated by cold and hunger. "There are no jobs in Morocco, life is very bad there, we have no money and cannot stay there," he told The Associated Press in Thessaloniki, northern Greece. "We will try to go to Europe again."

Until this summer, migrants entered Macedonia clandestinely, making their way north along railway lines — 14 people were killed in April by a train — or highways. That changed in June, when the conservative-led government issued three-day transit papers to all migrants, enabling them to cross the country by train, bus or even taxi.

Despite initial backlogs, the system worked smoothly until the decision to exclude suspected economic migrants. Macedonia is redoubling identity checks to eliminate fake refugees. Officials also fear that economic migrants will increasingly try to rush police or sneak in through unfenced parts of the border.

President Gjorge Ivanov has sharply criticized the European Union and Greece — with which the country has a long-festering dispute over Macedonia's official name — for lack of financial support and data sharing.

"In spite of the promises, Macedonia has not received any financial or technical assistance from the European Union regarding this migrant and refugee crisis," Ivanov said, saying his country has spent more than 10 million euros on migrant-related security alone.

"We face a lack of material and technical capacities as well as human resources in order to respond to the threats and risks to our national security," he said. Ivanov said Macedonia, which is not an EU member, can shelter about 2,000 economic migrants in temporary transit centers.

"Any increase in these numbers will increase permanent and direct threats and risks for the national security of Macedonia," he said. "The risk of possible conflict between refugees and migrants, migrants and police and army, or between migrants and local people is high."

Activist Jasmin Rexhepi, who heads the Legis human rights group that works with migrants, says Greece is not doing enough to screen migrants and stop fake asylum-seekers. "Macedonia cannot be the only defender of the EU boundaries," he told The Associated Press.

"This is a small country and has no capacity to do that. Greece ... is the first European country where migrants are making their entry," he said. "Its task ... is to make the first selection, to fully register the migrants and to control the flow."

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki urged EU leaders to find a comprehensive solution to the crisis. "The problem," he said, "is that no one in Europe at the moment has willingness to openly say what (EU) policy is."

Costas Kantouris contributed from Thessaloniki, Greece.

Kosovo Parliament disrupted with tear gas, again

November 30, 2015

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The opposition in Kosovo said Monday it would turn to street protests to get the government to cancel deals with Serbia and Montenegro after its lawmakers were barred from Parliament after they again broke up a session with tear gas.

Government lawmakers met alone in the afternoon after their earlier session was disrupted by the opposition, which has pledged that no sessions will take place until the government renounces a deal with Serbia giving more powers to ethnic-Serb communities in Kosovo and another with Montenegro on border demarcation.

The opposition responded by calling on the public to join it in street protests. "In a country with no opposition in the parliament, there is no parliament and it cannot be called a democracy," said main opposition Self-Determination Movement lawmaker Aida Derguti.

In a statement, the European Union called for a return to dialogue in Kosovo. "This kind of violent obstruction is neither acceptable nor will it solve any problem for the citizens of Kosovo," it said.

Over the past three months, the opposition has regularly disrupted parliament with tear gas, pepper spray, whistles and water bottles. The government of Prime Minister Isa Mustafa has accused the opposition of trying to come to power by force.

Two opposition lawmakers were under arrest before Monday's actions, and arrest warrants have been issued for two others. Police reported they had arrested one lawmaker Monday after finding two tear gas canisters on him as he tried to enter the Parliament hall. Another lawmaker who opened a canister in the hall at the morning session has also been arrested, according to police and party officials.

Parliament Speaker Kadri Veseli urged the opposition not to disrupt parliament this week, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due in Pristina. A chaotic situation continued at the Parliament building Monday afternoon. A tear gas canister was opened in the lobby as some opposition lawmakers tried to go round guards to reach the higher floors of the building.

The Constitutional Court has suspended the deal with Serbia until it rules on whether it breaches the constitution while the government also has said it will ask for international expertize for the border demarcation with Montenegro.

Kosovo and Serbia are holding EU-mediated talks to overcome their differences. Kosovo in 2008 declared independence from Serbia, an act that Serbia still rejects.

Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

Kosovo police arrest opposition leader for Parliament unrest

November 28, 2015

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Police entered the headquarters of Kosovo's main opposition party Saturday and arrested dozens of people, including one of its leaders who was wanted for the violent actions he has used to disrupt the country's Parliament.

Police said Albin Kurti and 86 others were arrested at the Self-Determination Movement Party's headquarters after tens of thousands of opposition supporters held a peaceful protest against the government's deals with Serbia and Montenegro.

During the past three months, opposition lawmakers in Kosovo have disrupted Parliament work with tear gas, pepper spray, whistles and water bottles, demanding that the government renounce a deal with Serbia giving more powers to ethnic-Serb communities in Kosovo and another with Montenegro on border demarcation. Another opposition lawmaker had already been arrested for the disruptions and two others are still sought by police.

Organizers said Saturday's rally, on neighboring Albania's national Independence Day, also celebrated by Kosovo Albanian brethren, attracted some 35,000 participants at the Zahir Pajaziti Square in downtown Pristina.

"The government turned the festivities into a day of violence," the three opposition parties said in a joint statement. Despite a police arrest warrant for him, Kurti spoke at the rally and was later accompanied by supporters to the party headquarters which were immediately surrounded by police.

Some opposition supporters tried to push police away from the road, but they were forced back by police who used pepper spray against them. Then police forces were seen entering the building and bringing out several opposition supporters.

Police said that two policemen and two opposition supporters were injured during the scuffling when they entered the party headquarters and were confronted by people who were hitting them with hard objects, chairs and other items.

The opposition said around 100 people were under arrest and a "considerable number" were injured. The opposition has said it will continue to disrupt Parliament work until the deals are renounced, while the government has accused the opposition of trying to come to power by force.

The opposition called on citizens to join them, adding that "Our actions cannot be stopped by any police state." The next Parliament session is set for Monday.

This story has been corrected to show the accurate spelling of Kurti's first name is Albin, not Abin.

Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed to this report.

Greek minister: EU provided inadequate help for refugees

December 04, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The European Union has provided far less than is needed to help Greece deal with the massive influx of refugees and other migrants this year, the country's European affairs minister said Friday.

Nikos Xydakis gave the example of staff from the European border agency Frontex, saying that Greece needed 750 but initially received only 350, increasing by a further 100 or so in recent days. "Since May Greece has persistently been asking for technical, technological and staffing help, and what it has received from Europe is far less than what was asked for," Xydakis told The Associated Press in an interview.

Greece is the main point of entry into the EU for people fleeing war and poverty at home, with the vast majority of the 700,000 people who have entered the country this year reaching Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. Few want to remain in the financially stricken nation, with nearly all heading on an overland route through the Balkans to the more prosperous European north.

The government says it has also received fewer fingerprinting machines than it needs to identify and register people, and not enough help to patrol the Aegean. "There is an inability of the member states and the European mechanisms to respond to the needs of this storm," Xydakis said.

He insisted Greece is meeting its obligations and adhering to all agreements made on the issue, saying small delays were "completely explainable" by the sheer volume of arrivals. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Athens on Friday for talks on issues including the migrant crisis, and said the U.S. was giving $24 million to the U.N. refugee agency.

Greece's response to the refugee crisis has come under criticism from some parts of the EU. Suggestions have surfaced in recent media reports that Greece could be suspended from the EU's borderless Schengen area unless it improves its border policing.

A suspension, which would mean travelers from Greece would pass through passport control on arrival in other Schengen countries, would have little practical effect on the migrant flow as Greece does not share any borders with other Schengen nations. But it would be a humiliating blow.

In Berlin, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert was asked about reports that some EU countries want Greece out of Schengen, but didn't answer when asked whether Germany was among them. "The chancellor and other members of the German government have repeatedly noted how important freedom of movement under Schengen is to us, and that the possibility of preserving this, which we want, depends very directly on how we as Europeans are able to protect and effectively control our exterior borders," Seibert said.

On Thursday, Greece appealed to the EU to activate a civil protection mechanism that will provide material help and an emergency border intervention team, and reached an agreement with Frontex for the agency to assist in registrations at the country's northern border with Macedonia.

EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Friday that "we hope to have concrete, tangible progress on the ground" in Greece before an EU summit on Dec. 17, where migration will be on the agenda.

The refugee crisis has been compounded in Greece by a decision by several Balkan nations to stop allowing people from countries not at war to enter their territories. Macedonia, which was the favored route from Greece northwards, has followed suit, building a fence on the border and preventing anyone not from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq from crossing.

At least 3,000 people from other countries remain stuck on the Greek side. Earlier Friday, some of them threw stones at Greek riot police, who have been struggling to maintain order for the past two days.

Xydakis said the challenge that faces the EU is whether it can "adhere to its founding conventions, that you .... don't beat (people) at the borders as Hungary did two months ago, and that the era of the Iron Curtain has ended in Europe."

Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

German Cabinet OKs military mission against IS in Syria

December 01, 2015

BERLIN (AP) — The German Cabinet has approved plans to commit up to 1,200 soldiers to support the international coalition fighting against the Islamic State group in Syria.

The mandate, which requires parliamentary approval, was endorsed by ministers Tuesday, news agency dpa reported. It isn't yet clear when lawmakers will consider it, but Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition has a large majority and approval looks assured.

Following the Paris attacks, Merkel agreed to honor a request from France to provide support for its operations against IS in Syria. Germany plans to send reconnaissance aircraft, tanker planes and a warship to the region in support roles, but won't actively engage in combat.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the daily Bild that he doesn't expect Germany to have 1,200 soldiers participating at any one time.

French far right collapses in regional runoff elections

December 14, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front collapsed in French regional elections Sunday, failing to take a single region after dominating the first round of voting, pollsters projected. The conservatives surged against the governing Socialists, changing the political map of France.

The failure of the National Front to gain any of the six regions where it was leading didn't stop the anti-immigration party from looking to the 2017 presidential election — Le Pen's ultimate goal. Le Pen had been riding high after extremist attacks and an unprecedented wave of migration into Europe, and the party came out on top in the voting in France's 13 newly drawn regions in the first round a week ago. But projections by France's major polling firms suggested the party lost in all of the regions Sunday, including decisive losses for both Le Pen and her popular niece.

"Here we stopped the progression of the National Front," said conservative Xavier Bertrand, who was projected to beat Le Pen in the Nord-Pas de Calais region. Le Pen supporters in a hall in the gritty northern town of Henin-Beaumont booed his image on a big screen as he spoke. The atmosphere was grim, in stark contrast to a week earlier when Le Pen won more than 40 percent of the vote — and was more than 15 points ahead of Bertrand.

The tables turned on Sunday as Bertrand beat Le Pen by nearly 15 points. Le Pen struck an upbeat tone despite the rout, pledging to keep fighting to expand support for her party. She said she would in the coming weeks "rally all the French, of all origins, who want to join us."

"Nothing will stop us," she told cheering supporters. Le Pen won 42.8 percent compared with Bertrand's 57 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. Le Pen's niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, took 46 percent in the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, compared with 53.7 percent for conservative Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi.

The conservatives were boosted to victory in the two Le Pen races with help from the Socialists who withdrew their candidates, asking voters to give their ballots to the mainstream rival. Turnout rose sharply from the first round, suggesting that many voters wanted to prevent the once-pariah National Front from gaining power.

In all, the conservative Republicans took seven regions, and the Socialists won five, Interior Ministry results showed. Among prizes falling to the conservatives was the Paris region, long a Socialist bastion.

A nationalist not affiliated with a major party won Corsica. Le Pen denounced the "campaign of calumny decided in the palaces of the (French) Republic," a reference to fear tactics by rivals, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls who said the National Front could lead the nation into "civil war."

Turnout was 7 percent higher than for the previous regional elections in 2010, with 50.4 percent of those eligible to vote casting ballots by 5 p.m. (1600 GMT), three hours before polls closed in big cities, according to the Interior Ministry. The figures weren't updated. The second-round turnout at the same time five years ago was 43. 4 percent.

In the past, the National Front has performed well in first-round votes but failed to carry through in the final round. That reflects a fear of allowing a party associated with extremism to take power.

Despite its loss, the National Front sent a message to the French. Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that the far right remains a "danger" despite the defeat, and urged his country to rally together against extremism.

"France in moments of truth has always taken refuge in its real values," Valls said. The National Front has racked up political victories in local elections in recent years, but winning control of any region would have been an unprecedented boost for the party ahead of presidential elections in 18 months.

Still, politicians on the left and right said mainstream parties must reassess their priorities. "We can no longer continue like this. We must act," Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis told leftist ranks.

Indeed, the day kicked off the unofficial election season as politicians from all parties cast Sunday's results in terms of their presidential ambitions.

Chris den Hond in Henin-Beaumont contributed to this report.

French far right faces test in regional election runoff

December 13, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front was the frontrunner heading into the decisive second round of French regional elections Sunday, and now it's up to voters whether to hand the once-pariah party an unprecedented political victory.

Le Pen is riding high after extremist attacks and Europe's migrant crisis, and the party came out on top in six of France's 13 newly drawn regions in the first round a week ago. But polls suggest it may fail to translate that into wins in the second round.

The once-powerful Socialist Party, which currently controls all but one of France's regions, came in a poor third place in the first round and pulled out of key races in hopes of keeping the National Front from gaining power. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy's party came in a strong second, and looks set to make substantial gains in Sunday's runoff.

Winning control of any region would be unprecedented and a big boost for the National Front — and especially for Le Pen's hopes for the presidency in 2017. Le Pen and her niece enjoyed a strong lead in races they are running in northern France and the region that includes Provence and the French Riviera.

But Le Pen faces a tough second-round race against conservative former Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand in the northern region of Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie, and her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen faces a similar challenge in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur against conservative Nice Mayor Claude Estrosi.

The electoral campaign has been especially bitter. Le Pen called Bertrand "the minister of unemployment." He said she is "the candidate of permanent confrontation." The nearly 50 percent of people who failed to cast ballots in the Dec. 6 first round could hold the key to the outcome of the final round. All parties have been trying to lure them in.

The Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, has used scare tactics. He denounced the National Front, in an interview with France Inter radio, as a "scam" that "fools the French." The outcome in the Paris region, now controlled by the left, remains unclear. Valerie Pecresse, a minister under former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is in a tight race against Socialist speaker of the house Claude Bartolone.

Le Pen promises no witch hunts in regions her far-right wins

December 10, 2015

PARIS (AP) — The head of France's far-right National Front made a final push for votes on Thursday, three days ahead of crucial elections, promising pragmatism over ideology in any regions won by her anti-immigration party and assuring there would be no witch hunts.

At a final rally, Le Pen underscored the national character of the regional vote, telling cheering supporters that a new France is within their grasp — and inside the ballot box. The lead candidates in all 13 French regions contesting the presidency of leadership councils shared the stage with Le Pen.

The anti-immigration National Front led in six regions in the Dec. 6 first round, and Le Pen herself led by a wide margin in the north where she is running. But a poll by TNS-Sofres-One Point published Wednesday suggested that both Le Pen and her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who is running in the south, would lose in the final round. Such an outcome would be a major setback for the National Front — and for Marine Le Pen's planned bid for the presidency in 2017.

The two Le Pens scored so well in round one that the governing Socialists, straggling in third place, ordered their candidates to withdraw so their voters could cast ballots for the rival conservative mainstream to block the far right.

Le Pen softened her usually trenchant stance in a reach-out to left and right, saying her party represents a new way where "patriots" respect the interests of the regions and clans and "political fraud" have no place.

"There will be no political witch hunts in the regions. They key word won't be ideology but pragmatism," she said in a clear bid to lure voters fearful of an agenda by a party accused by the mainstream of dividing the French.

But she also said that National Front regions would "open each file" when deciding on subsidies for associations and other interests and "stop, reform or continue." She and her niece have said in the past that they would refuse funding to interests representing a single community, a reference to Muslim groups. Both regions have large Muslim populations.

Earlier Thursday, Le Pen vowed, if elected to head the north, to bring suit against the French state over the situation in Calais, where thousands of migrants are camped in hopes of reaching Britain. She claimed on BFM television that the port city had deteriorated to the point where the mayor was issuing passes to residents to get home — a claim the mayor quickly denied.

The poll of voter intentions suggested Marine Le Pen would get 47 percent and her conservative adversary Xavier Bertrand, a former labor minister, 53 percent. Marechal-Le Pen, running in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, would take 46 percent of the vote, according to the poll, while her conservative rival Christian Estrosi would get 54 percent. The online poll took place two days after last Sunday's first round.

French regional vote: National Front dominates first round

December 06, 2015

PARIS (AP) — France's far right National Front won more support than any other party in the first round of regional elections Sunday, according to polling agency projections, in a new boost for Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration strategy and a new blow to President Francois Hollande's Socialists.

The projections put National Front candidates on top so far in six of France's 13 newly drawn regions. But Sunday's voting was only a first round, and some mainstream voters may steer away from far right candidates in the decisive Dec. 13 runoff.

The elections 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. It is the last election before France votes for president in 2017, and a gauge of the country's political direction.

Voters are choosing leadership councils for the regions, and had the choice of several parties in the first round. Polling agencies Ifop, OpinionWay and Ipsos projected that the National Front won between 27 and 30 percent support nationwide.

The polling projections estimated the percentage of votes for different parties, not the number of seats they are expected to win on France's regional councils. The number of seats will be determined in next Sunday's runoff, which pits the leading parties in each region against each other.

Sarkozy's conservative Republicans party and its allies were projected to come in second place in the national vote at around 27 percent. The Socialists, who currently run nearly all of the country's regions, were projected to come in a weak third place, with between 22 and 24 percent, followed by a smattering of mainly leftist groupings.

The big question for the runoff is whether supporters of Republican, Socialist, and smaller candidates will rally together to keep the National Front from winning control of any of the regions. The party, long considered a pariah, has never had such significant political power.

The National Front is hoping the regional elections will consolidate political gains Le Pen has made in recent years, and strengthen its legitimacy as she prepares to seek the presidency in 2017. The National Front "is the only (party) that defends an authentic French republic, a republic with only one vocation: the national interest, the development of French employment, the conservation of our way of life, the development of our tradition and the defense of all the French," Le Pen said Sunday night in Lille.

The Islamic State-inspired 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 arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and the exploits of IS have bolstered the discourse of the National Front, which 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. Her young niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, is running to lead the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region.

Projections showed the National Front lists with around 40 percent first-round support in both regions, a good 15 percent ahead of second-place Republicans. Socialist leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis called for his party to withdraw from the runoff in both races in hopes of keeping the National Front from winning.

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 and has lured in new followers from the left, the traditional right and among young people.

"The verdict of the French people tonight is clear," Sarkozy said Sunday night. "We must hear and understand the deep exasperation." Sarkozy said his party should refuse to ally with any National Front candidates or to pull out of any races in the second round. He said a victory for National Front ideas "would dramatically aggravate France's situation and create conditions of dangerous disorder."

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. Hollande's Socialist 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 urged 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.

Den Hond reported from Lille and Henin-Beaumont. Milos Krivokapic in Paris contributed to this report.