Far-right dominates debate in French local elections
France's ruling UMP is split over how to meet the threat from the far-right National Front (FN) in local elections Sunday, after the FN's strong first-round showing.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party took a beating in last Sunday's first round, attracting just 17 percent of the vote, well behind the opposition socialists' 25 percent.
Just behind the UMP however, the FN registered 15 percent of the votes, in the elections to local councils in France's 100 departments.
It was the FN's best-ever performance at this level, reflecting a surge in interest in the party since Marine Le Pen, daughter of longtime leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, took the helm in January.
The new leader has tapped into French fear and resentment over the economic and social crisis.
Much to the discomfort of her political rivals, she has pushed the issue of Islam -- and the role of Muslims in French society -- squarely on to the national political agenda.
Marine Le Pen is a less provocative speaker than her father, who seemed to delight in baiting his critics -- and playing to his supporters -- with remarks widely denounced as racist and anti-semitic.
She presents herself as a plain-speaker -- but one who talks good, common sense.
Observers believe she is trying to move her party more towards the mainstream, following the lead of populist, far-right parties elsewhere in Europe. Judging from recent opinion polls and last Sunday's results, she is succeeding.
Her success in the first round presented Sarkozy with a major political headache.
In Sunday's second round, 1,500 cantons are up for grabs out of a total of 2,000 in France. In 200 of them the FN faces the Socialist Party in the second-round run-off: in another 89, it is the UMP against the FN.
The Socialists have already made it clear that in a straight battle between the traditional, republican right and the National Front, voters should back Sarkozy's UMP.
They still bear the scars of the 2002 debacle, when their candidate Lionel Jospin was knocked out in the first round of the presidential election: they backed the UMP's Jacques Chirac in the run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But Sarkozy's UMP has failed to make a similar call to voters left with a choice between the Socialists or the National Front on Sunday.
The UMP issued a statement urging voters not to back the National Front -- but it did not call for them to vote Socialist either.
The suggestion that voters should abstain rather than vote for either the FN or the Socialists has however been rejected by several moderate members of the ruling party.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon distanced himself from the party line by calling for a vote against the National Front.
Several other senior UMP figures meanwhile, including serving ministers, have made it clear they would back a Socialist candidate against the National Front.
With the left backing the republican, or mainstream, alternatives -- right or left -- against the threat from the far right, Socialist leader Martine Aubry has attacked the ruling party's more ambiguous line.
"For the first time, the right in France has preferred the FN to the republican vote," she said.
"The right is in the process of losing its soul."
The Socialists have also denounced what it says is the increasingly right-wing line taken by the UMP on a number of key issues.
Political commentators say the UMP, has chosen to compete against the FN with tough policies on immigration, crime and Islam.
For the moment, the left has the majority in 58 out of France's 100 cantonal assemblies: it hopes to control 60 after the second round votes are counted.
But the Socialists too are riven with divisions, with several senior figures likely to chase the party's candidacy for the presidential race in what could be a bruising battle.
The National Front meanwhile, while it may not make the breakthrough on Sunday its enemies fear, nevertheless looks set to emerge stronger.
And its new, media-savvy leader Marine Le Pen has made it clear that come next year's presidential campaign, she will not just be running to make up the numbers.
© 2011 AFP