Henry Samuel, Telegraph (London), March 24, 2014
Marine Le Pen’s Front National is now the third major force in French politics after large gains in the first round of municipal elections
France on Monday woke up to a “new political age” that appears to have sounded the death knell of two-party politics in the country when the far-Right party Front National (FN) made surprising gains in municipal elections.
Surpassing even the most upbeat forecasts by Marine Le Pen, the FN leader, the anti-EU and anti-immigration party gained at least 10 per cent of the vote in 229 towns across France, qualifying them to run in the second round of elections on March 30.
Although it only won five per cent of the vote nationally, the FN’s success was proportionally high as it only fielded candidates in fewer than 600 of the 37,000 villages, towns and cities in France.
The elections were widely seen as a slap in the face for François Hollande, who is suffering record unpopularity against a backdrop of near-zero growth and high unemployment.v
“The FN can now boast to be the third major force in national politics alongside the Socialists and the ‘Republican’ Right,” wrote Le Monde newspaper in an editorial, saying the result reflected the “discredit from which [the president] is suffering”.
Meanwhile, the Left-leaning Nouvel Observateur heralded a “new age of the extreme-Right”.
The anti-EU party capitalised on the lowest turnout ever in French municipal elections amid sweeping public disenchantment in mainstream politics.
In the former coal-mining town of Henin-Beaumont in northern France, FN candidate Steeve Briois achieved 50.3 per cent, an absolute majority which made him the outright winner and mayor.
Under municipal election rules in France, any candidate who gets more than 50 per cent is declared the winner without a need for a second round.
The FN hopes to claim the mayorship of up to 15 medium-sized towns after the second round, and if it achieves that, it will have beaten its previous record in 1997 when it had four mayors. It is set to win at least 1,000 municipal councillor posts.
The party took the lead in the southern towns of Béziers, Saint-Gilles, Fréjus, Perpignan and Avignon, where Olivier Py, the head of the town’s famous theatre festival, warned the event would fold under a far-Right mayor.
The FN is also in second place in a handful of other cities, including Marseille and Nimes, and potential kingmaker in 200 other towns.
Sylvain Crépon, an FN specialist, warned, however that the party may end up the victim of its own success, as it is not yet ready to run this many towns.
“They don’t have enough local executives trained to run town halls. These results will confront them with their own limitations. One close aide of Marine Le Pen told me recently: ‘If we win 20 towns, we’re dead,’” he told La Croix.
The other main winner of the first round was the opposition centre-Right UMP party, previously headed by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, which won 46.5 per cent of the overall vote, way above the Socialists’ 38 per cent.
Jean-Francois Copé, UMP leader, predicted a “big victory” for his party in the second round, insisting that the results were proof of the party’s “rebirth after two difficult years”.
The solid results suggested that corruption scandals that have blighted the UMP as well as Mr Sarkozy, the former conservative president, have had little impact.
Scrambling to contain the damage, the Socialists on Monday announced they would join forces with the Greens and the Communist Party in a bid to block any FN advances.
They also said they would tactically withdraw from a three-way contest in the southern town of St Gilles, leaving voters with a straight choice between the FN candidate and the mainstream centre-Right UMP.
They are counting on the FN’s presence to finish ahead of the UMP in a number of three-way run-offs, including Strasbourg, Rouen, Avignon and Reims.
Mr Copé refused to urge UMP supporters to vote Socialist, while calling on those who had voted for the FN to “carry over their vote” onto UMP candidates in the second round.
He has ruled out alliances with the far-Right, but polls suggest there is a growing desire from a majority of FN supporters–but also those who back the UMP–to join forces in local politics.