France’s far-right National Front party (FN) hailed an “exceptional” showing in the first round of the country’s local elections Sunday, after winning historic levels of support in a number of towns and cities.
Early estimates showed FN candidates leading in the eastern town of Forbach and the southern towns of Fréjus, Avignon, Perpignan, Villeneuve-sur-Lot and Beziers, putting the party in pole position for the second round of voting on March 30th.
The news was even better for the FN in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, where the party’s candidate Steeve Briois took a majority of the vote at 50.26 percent, making 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.
Nationwide, the FN scored seven percent of the vote, according to pollster BVA – a high national tally, given that it only fielded candidates in some 600 of France's total 36,000 municipalities.
FN leader Marine Le Pen said it had an been “exceptional” election for the party.
“The National Front has arrived as a major independent force – a political force both at the national and local level," Le Pen told TF1 television.
Hollande’s Socialists trailing
As expected, it was a tough night for François Hollande’s ruling Socialists, who together with other left-wing allies took a 43 percent share of the vote nationwide, according to BVA’s estimate.
The vote came as further confirmation of Hollande’s record-low popularity after failing to rein in unemployment in the euro zone's second largest economy.
Right-wing parties, including the main opposition UMP party but not the FN, secured 48 percent.
The Socialist government immediately responded to the surge of the far right FN.
"The position of the Socialist Party is very clear: we will do everything we can to stop an FN candidate from winning a municipality," party spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said on France 2 television.
Jean-Francois Copé, 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.
Copé predicted a "big victory" for the UMP in the second round, in a sign that corruption scandals that have affected the conservative party, as well as former leader and president Nicolas Sarkozy, have had little impact.
Record low turnout
Just under a million people (nearly one in 60 of the population) stood as candidates in an election that will eventually produce over 36,000 new mayors for municipalities ranging from the tiniest of agricultural hamlets to big cities like Lyon, Marseille and Paris.
Turnout for this year’s vote looks to be heading for a record low, however.
Voter participation stood at 54.72 percent as of 5pm local time, according to France’s Interior Ministry, slightly down on 2008’s figure of 56.25 percent at the same stage.
Numerous polls have predicted a final participation rate of around 65 percent, less than the record low for a municipal election of 66.54 percent, set in 2008.
This did not appear to affect the FN, which hopes to claim the mayorship of 10 to 15 mid-sized towns after the second round.
That would represent a remarkable turnaround for a party that, at the time of the last municipals, was mired in financial crisis and internal bickering, and looked in danger of falling to the margins of French politics.
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.
The FN's power has steadily grown. Its proposals on immigration – curbing rights to family reunion and seeking a review of freedom of movement rules within the 28-nation European Union - have been endorsed by key figures in Sarkozy's UMP.
And its opposition to any further transfer of powers to European institutions is shared across the EU, not only by radical, populist parties growing strongly in several countries, but also by much of the mainstream.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-03-23