Paris (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande called Wednesday for unity following the record showing of the far-right National Front (FN) in regional polls, which has left traditional parties divided over how to fight back.
There needs "to be clarity in the behaviour and attitude of all political leaders to defend the values of the Republic," Hollande said through his spokesman ahead of Sunday's decisive second round of voting.
French presidents are meant to stay above the fray of party politics, so Hollande's intervention demonstrated the depth of the crisis gripping the political elite after Marine Le Pen's FN topped polls in the first round last Sunday.
The hyper-nationalist FN, which wants to pull France out of the euro and end all immigration, took the lead in six of France's 13 regions.
Any win in the second round would hand the party control of a region for the first time, and act as a springboard for Le Pen ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
Hollande's ruling Socialists have started pulling candidates from some regions where they cannot win, in order to help the opposition Republicans led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy beat the FN.
But Sarkozy -- aware that such a move would play into the FN's narrative that the mainstream parties are virtually identical -- has rejected the idea of teaming up with the Socialist party.
He also refused to paint the rise of the far-right in the moralistic tones used by the Left.
"A vote for the National Front is not a vote against the Republic... it is not immoral," he told a crowd in western France on Tuesday.
Sarkozy instead accused the FN of being "people who have never run anything, have no plan, have no self-control, who would create chaos."
- 'I'm a fighter' -
That contrasts with Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has depicted the contest with the FN as a war for France's soul.
"The National Front is a fraud," Valls told BFM TV on Wednesday, adding that left-wingers would have "no hesitation" in voting for the Republicans if it was the only way to beat the far-right.
Valls said the FN wanted to return France to the "wars of religion" and undermine the country's famous law on secularity of 1905, which banished religion from public life.
Asked whether he would quit his job if the FN won some regions on Sunday, Valls said: "No! Because the fight is a fight for life... I'm a fighter."
In the FN's prime stomping grounds of the north and southeast -- where Le Pen and her 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen respectively took over 40 percent of the vote in the first round -- the Socialists have accepted they have no chance of winning.
They have yanked their candidates from those two regions -- the economically-depressed Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie in the northeast and the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur -- to help Sarkozy's party.
The Socialists also considered pulling out of a third contest, the eastern Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine on Germany's border, but its local candidate has refused to throw in the towel.
The FN has watched with some relish as the traditional parties scramble for a response to their rise.
"They change their opinions to suit their interests," Marine Le Pen told Europe 1 radio on Wednesday.
"They are capable of saying everything, and the opposite of everything."
By contrast, the FN has stuck to its straightforward agenda, which many see as dangerous but which has growing appeal in the face of a struggling economy and concerns over immigration and terrorism.
The party has tapped into a deep-rooted Islamophobia and fears that France has lost its past glory.
"We are not a land of Islam," Marion Marechal-Le Pen said last week.
"In our country... we don't wear a veil and we don't impose cathedral-sized mosques.
"I want to rediscover our France, that of Louis XIV, of Napoleon."