PARIS: France’s far-right National Front party dealt a major blow to the ruling Socialists Sunday after several of its candidates took prime position in the first round of local elections.
The main centre-right opposition UMP party also hailed a “big victory” as initial estimates showed it came out trumps in the elections, as President Francois Hollande suffers record unpopularity against a backdrop of near-zero growth and high unemployment.
According to preliminary results from the interior ministry, the UMP and allies took 47 percent of the vote nationwide while the Socialist party and allies took 38 percent, and the FN five percent — far higher than its 0.9 percent result in the first round of 2008 municipal polls.
Applauding what she said was “an exceptional vintage for the FN”, Marine Le Pen — head of the anti-immigration, anti-EU party — said the polls marked the “end of the bipolarisation of the political scene”.
Although the FN had been expected to do well, the first round results were far better than expected.
Far-right candidates came ahead in several key towns and cities that will put them in pole position in the second round on March 30.
In the former coal-mining town of Henin-Beaumont in northern France, Steeve Briois went a step further and achieved 50.3 percent, an absolute majority which made him the outright winner and mayor.
Under municipal election rules in France, any candidate who gets more than 50 percent is declared the winner and there is no need for a second round.
The FN hopes to claim the mayorship of 10 to 15 mid-sized town after the second round, and if it achieves that, it will have beaten its previous record in 1997 when it had four mayors.
The Socialists immediately responded to the surge of the FN by acknowledging that some voters had registered their discontent with current government policies.
“Some voters expressed their concerns, and even their doubts, by abstaining or through their vote,” Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said.
Turnout was dismally low at around 38 percent — a record for French municipal elections.
Ayrault called on voters to rally in the second round to block the “advance of the FN”, in a mirror of 2002 presidential elections when then FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round, prompting the Socialist Party to urge support for centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac.
“Where the National Front is in a situation where it could win the second round, all democratic and Republican forces have the responsibility to create the conditions to stop it from doing so,” he said.
The leader of the UMP party meanwhile called on those who had voted for the FN to “carry over their vote” onto UMP candidates in the second round.
Jean-Francois Cope predicted a “big victory” for his party in the second round, in a sign that corruption scandals that have affected the UMP as well as former president Nicolas Sarkozy had little impact.
In the French capital, the UMP was encouraged by an unexpected lead won by former Sarkozy minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who is competing against Anne Hidalgo, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, in a fierce battle that will see Paris get its first ever female mayor.
Hidalgo had largely been tipped as the favourite, but the results instead gave Kosciusko-Morizet a handy advantage going into the second round.
The mayorship of the French capital is the most high profile of municipal elections that will produce over 36,000 new mayors for villages, towns and cities across France.
And while very few of these will be from the FN, the Sunday results are a remarkable turnaround for a party that, at the time of the last municipals, was mired in financial crisis and internal bickering.
Le Pen took over the FN leadership in 2011 and set about broadening the appeal of a party regarded as taboo by many voters in light of her father’s repeated convictions for Holocaust denial and inciting racial hatred.
As well as trying to “detoxify” the FN’s image, she has attempted to make it less of a single-issue party by campaigning on unemployment, costs of living and crime.
Past FN attempts at running local councils have often failed as a result of the eccentric personalities involved, but Le Pen has been eager to show that the party is capable of prudent governance. “We want to become apparent as a big local political force,” Le Pen said Sunday.
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