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.
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.
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