France's anti-immigrant National Front (FN) scored gains in first-round municipal elections on Sunday (23 March), as voters punished President François Hollande ahead of European elections in May, where the far-right faction could emerge as the country's leading political party.
The elections in thousands of constituencies across France were the first nationwide voter test for Hollande, who came to power in May 2012 and has seen his popularity slump to record lows for failing to rein in unemployment.
A second round of voting is due next Sunday, but FN leader Marine Le Pen, who has softened the party's image since taking over from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011, said advances made in the first round already marked a major breakthrough.
"The National Front has arrived as a major independent force - a political force both at the national and local level," Le Pen, who scored 18% in the 2012 presidential election, told TF1 television.
An exit poll by BVA put Hollande's Socialists, and their left-wing allies, at 43% of the vote, trailing opposition conservatives, whose 48% put them on track to reverse Socialist gains made in the 2008 municipal elections.
The FN scored seven percent of the vote, BVA estimated, a high national tally given that it only fielded candidates in 596 out of 36,000 municipalities across France.
In the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, a former coalmining centre with 125, 000 inhabitants that has long been in Socialist hands, FN candidate Steeve Briois was declared winner, with an outright majority of votes.
Exit polls put it ahead in the eastern town of Forbach, in France's former industrial heartland. In the south, it was in the lead in Avignon, Perpignan, Beziers and Frejus, and vying for second place in Marseille, behind the conservative incumbent.
There was some solace for the Socialists, as a TNS Sofres exit poll showed their candidate for Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, well ahead of her conservative rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
Other polls gave Kosciusko-Morizet a better showing, but the mayor is chosen by the city council and analysts say the power balance there favours the Socialists.
‘All against the FN’
Pollsters have identified half a dozen towns that could see FN rule after next Sunday's run-offs, giving it the chance to show it can be trusted with power after attempts to run four towns in the late 1990s revealed its lack of competence.
With official figures expected to show turnout at record lows around 65% of voters, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault made a television appeal for "all democratic forces" to close ranks against FN candidates next week.
"Wherever the FN is in a position to win the second round, all who support democracy and the Republic have a duty to prevent them," Ayrault said, calling on voters to turn out in greater numbers than for the first round.
Heavy losses for Hollande's party could trigger a re-shuffle of his cabinet and encourage backbench attacks on a raft of new pro-business policies, for which Hollande has called a vote of confidence in coming weeks.
However, the final outcome will depend, in some cases, on highly unpredictable three-way races between the Socialists, the UMP and the National Front.
While Ayrault called for Socialist and UMP voters to back whichever of the major parties' candidates is best placed to ensure the FN does not win control of a town, the UMP is seen declining such a pact.
Le Pen has sanctioned and ejected members found to have made racist comments. While sceptics say much of the party's grass roots remains racist, analysts say the strategy has made it more acceptable to many potential voters.
"The National Front is much less repulsive than it has been in recent years," said Jean-Daniel Levy, an analyst with pollster Harris Interactive. "Voters are not looking for the most competent candidate, but the one who shares their feelings about the state of French society."
Polls also show the FN emerging as the leading French party in European Parliament elections in May.
The Socialists are credited with 16% of the voting intentions, according to a survey by Opinion Way for Le Figaro and LCI in February 2014, which puts them behind the centre-right and the far-right, scoring respectively 22% and 20%.
French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault acknowledged that “the first round of voting shows a high level of abstention and the advance of the Front National” and called on voters to rally against the far-right for the second round.
La Croix, a French Roman Catholic paper, led with a following headline, saying: “The Left punished, breakthrough by the Front National”. “The first round, characterised by high levels of abstention, has seen a surge by the FN and significant losses for the left,” the paper wrote.
Le Figaro, a conservative newspaper, wrote: “UMP’s victory and the surge of the FN, which will be present next Sunday in many triangulaires [elections composed of three main parties], represents a failure for the left.”
L’Humanité, a communist newspaper wrote that the results of the first round were “a warning to François Hollande”
- 30 March: 2nd round of local elections in France
- 25 May: European elections in France