French far-right's growth stalls as Francois Hollande's Socialists cling on in Doubs by-election

François Hollande’s Socialists narrowly cling on to power in regional by-election indicating national voter intentions as Marine le Pen grabs 48 per cent of vote and Sarkozy’s UMP is sidelined

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After 13 by-election defeats in a row, President François Hollande’s Socialists just about hung on to a seat in Franche Comté in the first big electoral test since the attacks in Paris a month ago.

Thousands of centre-right voters moved, however, to the far right, to give Marine Le Pen’s “de-demonised” Front National its best-ever by-election score with over 48 per cent of the vote with a candidate who had issued leaflets on the “Islamist peril” facing France.

The election was fought in a series of villages and small industrial towns in Doubs, beside the Swiss border, far from the political heartland of France.

But it became a microcosm of the unpredictable, tri-polar electoral landscape – centre-left, centre-right and far-right – which will confront the country in the next presidential race in 2017.

The strong performance of the FN can be attributed in part to the jihadist attacks. On the other hand, the Socialists would probably have lost in the first round if the terrorist incidents had not galvanised left-wing and centrist voters.

Arguably, the biggest losers were not even running today. The main centre-right opposition party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), was knocked out in the first round last Sunday – starting a calamitous week for its leader, former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The UMP has since ripped itself apart over how its supporters should vote in today’s second round. Should they bar the way to the Front National; vote to “reject” President Hollande; or stay at home? In the event, many UMP supporters seem to have defied Mr Sarkozy and voted for the FN.

The Front National’s candidate, Sophie Montel, 45, was an awkward advertisement for Ms Le Pen’s attempt to clean up the FN since she took over the leadership from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011. Ms Montel spoke a few years ago of the “evident inequality between races”. She scarcely campaigned in person in either round.

She appeared on Sunday night to have lost the seat by a few hundred votes, despite at one point seeming to be heading for a narrow victory. The successful Socialist candidate, Frédéric Barbier, 54, is a respected local politician. He attempted to surf on the mood of national solidarity since the jihadist attacks in Paris.

The result of the two-round Doubs by-election was a relief to Mr Hollande and confirmed his partial recovery in national opinion polls since the attacks, which killed 17 people. A defeat would have left the Socialists and their allies with a fragile majority in the National Assembly.

Most of all, the Doubs by-election may go down as the graveyard of the comeback hopes of Mr Sarkozy, who did not campaign personally in either round. He returned as party leader in September, promising to restore strong leadership and a clear political strategy. An opinion poll at the weekend suggested his support within the UMP had collapsed by 26 points to 40 per cent since his return.

Mr Sarkozy’s reputation, damaged by the first-round by-election defeat, was further shredded by an embarrassing revelation last week when it emerged he had flown to Abu Dhabi to give a highly paid conference speech. 

“The boat is on fire and he is looking elsewhere,” one UMP parliamentarian said. “He has completely messed up his return.”

Several senior party figures, including former Prime Minister Alain Juppé – Mr Sarkozy’s chief rival for the centre-right presidential “nomination” in 2017 – called on UMP voters to “block” the “dangerous” rise of the FN by voting for the Socialist candidate.

At a meeting of the party’s political bureau on Tuesday, Mr Sarkozy suggested the party should give no specific advice but should state that it would be better for the country and for the UMP if the far-right candidate lost.

This convoluted proposal was narrowly rejected in favour of the “neither-nor” approach of UMP right-wingers.

These are not ephemeral or local quarrels. They foreshadow the awkward questions which confront all French politicians in the next two years.

France’s two-round system of elections was designed for a pattern of two broadly allied “families” of the centre-right and the centre-left and a scattering of minority parties. The emergence of Marine Le Pen’s “deodorised” Front National as a third electoral force in its own right has upset all calculations.

The centre-left and centre-right are no longer guaranteed a place in the two-candidate second round of the 2017 presidential election. Au contraire, as polls now stand, Ms Le Pen seems likely to come top in the first round in two years’ time with up to 30 per cent of the vote.

Second place will then be a close-fought lottery between centre-left and centre-right – with a glittering prize at stake. Whichever of the mainstream candidates comes second in the first round would be almost guaranteed to be elected President in the second round.

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