Big gains for far right in local polls
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party struggled in local elections on Sunday, trailing the opposition Socialists by 8 points and finishing barely ahead of the surging far-right National Front.
France’s far right National Front (FN) continued to steal headlines after Sunday’s local elections, in which half of France’s 2,023 cantons, the country’s smallest territorial units, were up for grabs.
Surfing on the popularity of their new leader Marine Le Pen, National Front candidates won a place in the second round in 394 cantons, or one in five of all contested councils.
Socialist candidates won the most votes, with 25% of ballots cast. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), picked up 17% of the votes cast, barely ahead of the National Front’s 15% tally.
"It’s not just a sanction vote,” said Marine Le Pen, who took over as the head of the euro-sceptic, anti-immigration National Front party in January. Since then, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen has twice polled ahead of President Sarkozy in surveys of voters’ intentions ahead of next year’s presidential election.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 last week, Le Pen said the broad support she is enjoying should not be treated as a surprise. “Those numbers encourage me to keep working and talking about my policy proposals. There are still a lot of French people who have a totally caricatured vision of the National Front,” she said.
FN officials said Sunday’s election results confirmed their progression. The party’s vice-president Louis Aliot declared: "There is something in the air…If things continue this way, the [National] Front is going to replace the right.”
Abstention on the rise
But over 55% of potential voters shunned the ballot box on Sunday, underscoring a growing trend towards abstention that marked elections for the European Parliament in 2009 and French regional polls last March.
“Abstention is France’s first political party,” the free daily 20 Minutes mused on its website on Monday, adding that while turnout was expected to be low, levels had exceeded the worst expectations. Voter participation in France has historically been high.
Jean-François Doridot of the Ipsos polling institute said low turnout provided “further proof of the disenchantment of the French vis-à-vis the political establishment, from both the left and right.”
Sarkozy’s party left smarting
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right party struggled to inspire voters in what was the final electoral contest before next year’s presidential poll – in which Sarkozy is expected to seek a second term.
UMP officials tried to minimize the results of Sunday’s first-round poll, preferring to comment on the left’s failure to score a decisive win. The party leader, Jean-François Copé, told RTL radio that the results “were not glorious” for the Socialists.
“If we add up the Socialists’ score and that of the other left-wing parties we get 31%, the same score as the presidential majority,” Copé said, referring to UMP allies who ran on independent tickets.
Many French observers said the results reflected the sagging approval rates of Sarkozy and his government. The polls came on the heels of the latest in a series of ministerial scandals that saw UMP party fixture Michèlle Alliot-Marie ejected from the foreign affairs post.
But the UMP was not the only party to bemoan Sunday’s results. The polls have also been described as a step back for the Greens, who failed to establish themselves as the second biggest force on the left. Green candidates picked up just over 8% of the vote, falling short of the 9% tallied by a far-left coalition headed by France’s Communist Party.