Hollande punished as National Front makes sweeping gains in French local elections

Embattled President’s Socialist party suffers big losses, with mayoral race in Paris offering only respite
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In a stinging punishment for President François Hollande, right-wing and far-right parties made sweeping gains in the first round of the French municipal elections on Sunday night.

Marine Le Pen’s National Front seemed likely to score its best-ever results in local elections and may capture several town halls next weekend for the first time in nearly two decades.

The far-right won outright in the depressed former mining town of Hénin-Beaumont, near Lille, without the need for a second round of voting next week. It also had substantial leads on Sunday night in two medium-sized towns in the South, Fréjus and Béziers. It held smaller leads in two larger southern cities, Perpignan and Avignon, and in Forbach in Lorraine.

In Marseille, France’s second city, the NF pushed the Socialists into third place.

One bright spot for President Hollande was the solid performance in Paris by the Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo. Although she seemed unlikely to top the first round poll, she was winning easily in crucial districts and was favourite to become the capital’s first woman mayor next weekend.

The poll was the first electoral test for Mr Hollande and his centre-left government since it came to power almost two years ago. Given the President’s abysmal approval ratings of about 23 per cent, and an unemployment rate stuck just below 10 per cent, sweeping losses were expected.

There was a sharp swing to the centre-right, which won 46 per cent of the votes, compared with 40 per cent for the left. The National Front scored only 7 per cent nationwide but was running lists of candidates in only 560 medium-sized towns and cities, out of 1,200.

Early returns suggested that the NF – made cosmetically more respectable by Ms Le Pen over the past three years – was well placed to smash its previous municipal best result in 1995, when it won three town halls. Ms Le Pen spoke of an “exceptional high tide” for her party. She said electors had voted to reject a stumbling centre-left administration and a centre-right stricken by accusations of financial wrongdoing against several of its leaders, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

“This is the end of the two-way division of French political life,” she said. “The National Front has now emerged as a great, independent force in its own right, not just nationally but locally.”

Socialist party leaders blamed abstention by left-wing voters, which reduced the nationwide turn out to 61 per cent, the lowest ever in a municipal election. The Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said both left-wing and centre-right voters now had a “ responsibility” to come together to prevent the NF from capturing more town halls next Sunday.

Despite the multiple scandals, Sunday’s results also looked reasonably strong for the main centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). The centre-right seems certain, after the second round next week, to recapture a string of medium-sized towns lost to the left in 2008. 

Its hopes of recapturing Paris appeared to have been dashed, however. The centre-right candidate, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, was narrowly ahead in the overall vote but trailing badly in the swing arrondissements, or districts, she needs to defeat Ms Hidalgo, the current deputy mayor, next week.

In the 1,200 largest towns and cities, only those parties which won 10 per cent of the first vote can compete  next week. The NF should be able to fight again in more than 100 towns and led the first-round vote in 12 towns and large villages, mostly in the south. It has a strong chance of capturing two other town halls on Sunday – Beziers on the Languedoc coast and Fréjus, near Toulon.

Last night, centre-right leaders dismissed the government’s calls for a “Republican front” of left and centre-right to block the advance of Ms Le Pen’s party. 

Depending on the scale of  left-wing losses next week, Mr Hollande could dismiss or reshuffle the government. Mr Ayrault is a possible casualty, with  the Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, and Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, the favourites to replace him.

Alternatively, President Hollande may stay the axe until the European elections in May which are likely to produce an even more calamitous result for the left and could even be “won” nationwide by the National Front.

The NF’s success on Sunday came despite a campaign littered with embarrassments. One nonagenarian candidate in the outer Paris suburbs died before the nominations deadline but her name was not removed from the party’s list. A candidate in the south of France turned out to be an actress in pornographic movies.

A scattering of other NF candidates were revealed to have racist views or extremist  connections, despite Ms le Pen’s claim to have cleaned up the party.