In city council by-election at Dreux, 60 miles west of Paris, the National Front candidate, Marie-France Stirbois, won 36.4 per cent of the vote - little more than at council elections a year ago - while the Gaullist candidate and incumbent mayor , Gerard Hamel, increased his share of the vote by 7 per cent, narrowing the first-round gap to 2 per cent. The Socialists increased their share by more than 6 per cent. The second round is held on Sunday.
The by-election had been called after an inquiry into last year's election found that Mr Hamel had breached election rules. As head of a company with contracts to supply the council when his name went forward, he was technically barred from standing for mayor. Having resigned his job soon afterwards, he was free to stand again in Sunday's by-election.
The results at Dreux were always going to be scrutinised for a glimpse of the French political mood. A drab town with high unemployment, a large immigrant population and poor communications, Dreux is classic National Front territory.
Mrs Stirbois is the widow of a senior aide to the Front's leader, Jean- Marie Le Pen, and an experienced campaigner who won easily in the first round of last year's election.
She was only prevented from becoming mayor when the mainstream parties agreed to co-operate in the second round of voting to keep her out of office in a commonly used tactic known as forming a "Republican Front".
Yesterday, Mrs Stirbois and the National Front were putting a brave face on her showing and speaking with confidence of "our newest National Front mayor", but her chances of winning now look slim.
The Socialist Party leadership in the region has already "recommended" that the Socialist candidate drop out and that Socialist voters back Mr Hamel.
The drawback is that keeping the Front out of office when it wins the largest number of votes, feeds frustration. On Sunday night there were violent clashes between young Front supporters and their opponents in the centre of Dreux.
There is evidence too that, kept out of parliamentary and local council power by the Republican Front, the extreme right is looking to extend its influence.
It has recently been successful in nominating candidates for school governing bodies, the management boards of council estates, the police and other professional associations.Reuse content