National Front candidate Laurent Lopez won a hotly-contested local council by-election in the southern town of Brignoles on Sunday, in a vote seen as a test of the far-right party's popularity ahead of the 2014 municipal elections.
France's far-right National Front (FN) won a bellwether by-election on Sunday, cementing the party's status as a major political force.
The eurosceptic and anti-immigration party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972 has for years been largely regarded as a pariah in French politics but it has gained significantly in strength and popularity in recent years under the leadership of Marine Le Pen (the daughter of Jean-Marie).
The party's candidate Laurent Lopez took 53.9 percent of the vote in the second round of the by-election in the southeastern town of Brignoles, officials in the Var department said.
"I am very happy, it is an unambiguous result," said Lopez of his victory.
When the FN candidate made it into the run-off after the October 6 first round vote, it sent shockwaves across France and prompted calls by the ruling Socialists for a "republican front" to stem the party's progress.
The left, which had no candidates in the Brignoles run-off, had urged voters to back the centre-right UMP candidate Catherine Delzers, whom election officials said took 46.1 percent of the vote in Sunday's ballot.
Analysts have said that an FN win in Brignoles, whose mayor belongs to the Communist party, could be a significant barometer of the national mood.
“The significance of an election like the one in Brignoles – although it’s a tiny election in the scheme of things – is that it’s a test case of whether the FN can stand in the second round against the combined efforts of the other parties and succeed”, James Shields, author of "The Extreme Right in France", told FRANCE 24.
In a dramatic boost for the party now led by the founder's daughter Marine Le Pen, a new poll said the FN would secure 24 percent of the vote in next May's elections for the European Parliament.
The Ifop poll for the Le Nouvel Observateur magazine said the survey signalled a landmark shift.
"For the first time in a poll on voting intentions in an election, the FN is clearly ahead of both the (ruling) Socialist Party and the [main opposition party] UMP," Ifop said.
The Socialists in the Ifop poll came in third place for the next May’s European elections with 19 percent, with the UMP trailing behind the FN at 22 percent.
Although Interior Minister Manuel Valls has taken a hard line on immigration, the Socialists are being increasingly perceived as unable to address mounting concerns about crime as well France’s persisting economic malaise.
In a reflection of that sentiment, President Francois Hollande's popularity rating has plummeted to an all-time low of 29 percent.
France is grappling with record unemployment of more than three million, a huge budget deficit and slow economic growth.
French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici on Sunday said it was vital for the ruling Socialists "to preserve and win back the support of the working classes."
France's "main party"?
It was necessary to "fight the Front National by showing that it brings false solutions and that our economic and social policies deliver results," Moscovici told the weekly Journal du Dimanche on Sunday.
"The French economy is indisputably in better shape," he argued. "France is doing better than the eurozone and better than what was forecast before summer."
With the government suffering from unpopularity, former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP has been wracked by infighting, which could also work to the FN's advantage.
Marine Le Pen has claimed that the FN was now "France's main party".
"The French are showing a wish to take their destiny into their hands and give back their country its sovereignty," FN secretary general Steeve Briois said this week, promising an "unprecedented earthquake" in the European Parliament elections.
Since taking over as FN leader in 2011, Marine Le Pen has tried to broaden the appeal of a party whose image has long been linked to the personality of her firebrand 85-year-old father, who has convictions for incitement to racial hatred and for Holocaust denial.
The FN has expelled overtly racist activists and selected a number of ethnic minority candidates for local elections, as well as increasing its focus on policy issues other than immigration and the EU.
Click on the stories below for FRANCE24's coverage of the by-election:
France 24's special reports from Brignoles
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(FRANCE24 with wires)
Date created : 2013-10-13