Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right party scored a crushing victory in French local elections tonight, strengthening the former president’s chances of a comeback in 2017.
Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National made sweeping gains in council seats but looked likely to fall short of its ambition to capture one or two councils for the first time.
The ruling Socialists lost about half of the 61 départements or counties they had controlled, including traditional left-wing bastions in the industrial north, the greater Paris area and President François Hollande’s own fiefdom of Corrèze in the south-west.
The result was a stinging rebuff for Mr Hollande and the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls – but fell short of the utter humiliation that the Left had feared a few weeks ago. Mr Valls fought a vigorous campaign and will not suffer the fate of his predecessor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was sacked after the Socialists scored only 14 per cent in the European elections a year ago.
In pictures: Nicolas Sarkozy through the decades
In pictures: Nicolas Sarkozy through the decades
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Nicolas Sarkozy looks on before the meeting with King Juan Carlos of Spain at the Zarzuela Palace on 27 May 2014 in Madrid
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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy leaves 'La Petite Maison' in Nice, southeastern France, on 27 September 2013 after a private conference in Cannes
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France's outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with France's president-elect Francois Hollande, next to France's outgoing First Lady as they are about to leave the Elysee presidential Palace after the formal investiture ceremony between Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, on 15 May 2012 in Paris
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President and right-wing ruling party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate for the French 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Saint-Pierre in the French overseas island of La Reunion, on 4 April 2012
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Former France's president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy leave the Elysee presidential Palace after the formal investiture ceremony between France's president-elect Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy on 15 May 2012 in Paris
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French Interior Minister and leader of the French ruling Conservative party UMP (Union for a Polpular Movement) Nicolas Sarkozy greets British Conservative party leader, David Cameron prior to a meeting in Paris on 6 January 2006
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French interior minister and powerful head of the ruling UMP party Nicolas Sarkozy pronounces a statement in the high chamber of French Parliament focused on his general policy on 8 June 2005 in Paris, few days after his return to government office
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Nicolas Sarkozy in Brussels on 3 May 2004
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Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of Interior and French President Jacques Chirac at Elysee palace in Paris on 10 May 2002
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Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR), waves during a rally in Dijon on 4 June 1999 ahead of the 13 June European elections
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Nicolas Sarkozy in campaign for the Legislatives of 1986
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Nicolas Sarkozy participates in a demonstration in Paris, 14 April 1976
He said tonight that the Left had been punished for its internal quarrels and for failing to present a more united front to the electorate. He pointed to evidence that the French economy is finally recovering – including an increase in consumer spending power. He urged Socialist supporters to “maintain hope” for 2017.
Mr Sarkozy’s centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) and its allies seemed likely to win at least 60 of the 98 départements in mainland France. After fighting a controversial hard-right campaign, which verged on Islam-bashing, Mr Sarkozy said tonight that the electorate had “massively rejected the most archaic Left in Europe” and set his movement on course to regain power in national elections in two years’ time.
His approach has, however, angered many other senior figures on the centre-right and widened splits within his UMP party.
The two-round local council elections have demonstrated the growing strength of Ms Le Pen’s sanitised far right movement. They have also exposed its fragilities.
In the first round last Sunday Ms Le Pen failed to justify her boast that the FN was France’s most popular political party. She scored 25 per cent nationwide, compared with 29 per cent for UMP and its allies and 21.5 per cent for the Socialists (or 27 per cent, including close allies).
Tonight it seemed that she had failed to capture any départements outright – not even Vaucluse in the Rhône valley or Aisne, north of Paris, where the FN scored heavily last week.
However, Ms Le Pen can justifiably claim to have ended the long-standing centre-left versus centre-right duopoly of French politics.
Since she became the FN leader in 2011, she has moved to the left on economic issues and made moves to stamp out overt racism within the party (with mixed results). She has also pursued a strategy of patient conquest from the grassroots upwards.
By capturing something like 100 council seats nationwide tonight – compared with just two seats in the last similar election in 2011 – she will have massively increased the far-right presence in the basement of French politics.
But she still faces popular opposition: in Hénin-Beaumont near Lille on Sunday morning four bare-breasted women from the Femen movement – wearing blonde Marine Le Pen wigs and Adolf Hitler moustaches – demonstrated against the FN leader.
Mr Sarkozy fought an uncompromisingly hard-right campaign, frequently sounding more “lepenniste” than Ms Le Pen. His key campaign promise was to abolish separate meals for Muslim (and Jewish) children when pork is served in school canteens. Giving Muslim kids a choice was an attack on France’s “secular” state, he said.
Mr Sarkozy returned as UMP president last September. He wanted to pile up a big score last night to improve his chances in the first ever centre-right presidential “primary” which will be fought next year.
The former president faces tough competition for the centre-right nomination from the calmer, more thoughtful – but older – former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, 69. In recent days Mr Juppé has made it clear that he finds Mr Sarkozy’s Islam-bashing vulgar and destructive.Reuse content