The National Front’s handful of wins in French local elections cannot be dismissed as a protest vote

Ms Le Pen has worked hard to distance herself from the aggressive nastiness of the party created by her father, Jean-Marie, and has taken great care to cultivate target seats

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France’s municipal elections at the weekend were a calamity for President François Hollande. Not only did his Socialist party lose ground to its traditional foe, the centre-right UMP; the far-right National Front also made unprecedented gains, winning one mayoralty outright – its first for 20 years – and securing pole position in a number of next Sunday’s run-offs. Cue trumpeting about the “end of two-party domination” from Marine Le Pen, the FN’s charismatic leader.

With the economy sluggish, unemployment soaring and presidential approval at a record low, something of a drubbing for the incumbents was to be expected. But low turn-out and a number of nasty surprises – not least the Socialists pushed into third place behind the FN in Marseilles – suggest more than usually piquant voter disaffection.

There is not much to celebrate at UMP headquarters, either. Even with Mr Hollande’s travails, the outcome was far from a landslide and the majority of major cities look set to be held by the left. With Nicolas Sarkozy mired in financial scandal, and his ambitions with regards to the Élysée Palace unclear, the party’s leadership vacuum is taking its toll.

Thus, the National Front was the big winner, with more than 400 local council seats already secure and the prospect of control of a smattering of town halls for the first time since the mid-1990s. True, none are major cities. But the impact is still significant. Ms Le Pen has worked hard to distance herself from the aggressive nastiness of the party created by her father, Jean-Marie, and has taken great care to cultivate target seats. Last weekend’s results, particularly the first-round win in Hénin-Beaumont, suggest that the strategy is paying off.

It is as well to retain some perspective. Across the country, the National Front won only 6 per cent of the vote and even the successes are not assured. For all its leader’s public-relations efforts, the majority of the party is as shambolic and unprofessional as ever. The FN’s last local gains, in 1995, were swiftly lost again thanks to administrative incompetence. A repeat performance is all too possible.

Even so, Ms Le Pen’s progress cannot easily be dismissed. Not only is she a more credible and respectable face for the National Front than her father was, the rise of the far right in France is paralleled in many countries across Europe – with Ukip in Britain, for example – as economic inequalities and concerns at a perceived loss of identity leave voters tempted by extremes.

Nor are Mr Hollande’s electoral nightmares over. In two months, the French will vote in EU polls which the FN is now in a good position to top – hence next week’s reshuffle now not being expected until May. But a new Prime Minister to replace Jean-Marc Ayrault will not turn the tide. Mr Hollande needs, more than anything, economic good news. But although he is now – finally – committed to addressing France’s structural problems, such measures will cause more pain than gain in the short term.

The risk, then, is that the next national elections, in 2017, take place with the Socialists wounded, the centre right rudderless and the FN not yet exposed for the amateurs that they are. Last weekend’s calamity is Mr Hollande’s alone. But it may yet become France’s.

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