France's conservatives and far-right lead local polls
The French right was celebrating on Monday after local elections saw a conservative alliance and the far-right National Front triumph over the ruling Socialists in a key test ahead of the 2017 presidential poll.
An alliance led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy took first place in Sunday's first-round polling with 29.4 percent of the vote, while the National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen came second with 25.2 percent, according to latest figures from the interior ministry.
The Socialists trailed in third with an estimated 21.9 percent -- another blow for President Francois Hollande who has failed to reduce double-digit unemployment in the eurozone's second-largest economy since taking charge in 2012.
Sarkozy described the vote as a "massive shift" back to a "reunited" right-wing, and hailed it as the first step toward mainstream conservatives returning to power that people who cast ballots for the FN should join.
"I want to tell everyone who chose to vote for the FN that we hear your exasperation, but that party... will offer no solution to the difficulties of the French people," Sarkozy said.
The result was greeted with some relief by all mainstream parties in France after several opinion polls predicted victory for Le Pen's surging anti-EU and anti-immigration FN.
Le Pen still claimed the results as a "very big success", with her party leading the first-round vote in 43 of 101 "departments", which have power over local issues such as schools and welfare.
"I said very clearly -- 20 percent would be a good result, 25 percent is a triumph," she told BFMTV on Monday.
But her party will struggle to find allies when voters return for second-round run-off elections on March 29, and is not expected to win control of more than four departments.
"There will be no local or national deal with the leaders of the FN," Sarkozy declared immediately after the initial figures were released.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls tried to put a positive spin on his party's results, saying it had "resisted better than expected" and calling for left-wing parties to unite ahead of the second-round run-offs.
- 'Hate' campaign against FN -
The mainstream parties have closed ranks against the FN in recent weeks, with the Socialists calling on voters to back either left or right in the second round to keep the far right from power.
Sarkozy has refused to play the game, calling on his supporters to abstain in areas where his UMP has been knocked out.
Valls called that "a moral and political failing".
"When we have to choose between a Republican candidate and the National Front, we must not hesitate," he said.
Le Pen has depicted this strategy as a campaign of "hate" by the mainstream against her party.
She remained bullish about the initial results, highlighting that the FN won 427,000 more votes on Sunday than in its victorious performance in European parliamentary polls last year.
"This massive vote for the National Front that is taking root in election after election shows that the French want to rediscover their freedom," she said.
Analysts said its performance on Sunday confirmed the FN was more than just a flash in the pan, and its recent successes were not just a short-term protest vote as many detractors had claimed.
"Even if it's not 28-30 percent, it's still a very good score in historic terms for the FN," said political analyst Jean-Yves Camus. "It's a confirmation, not a break-out election."
Le Pen is hoping this momentum will carry forward to a successful run at the presidency in 2017.
Her party has capitalised on anger over France's lacklustre economy, as well as the politically explosive issues of immigration and the integration of Islam into French society after the Paris Islamist attacks.
But the National Front has also benefited from Hollande's disastrous popularity ratings, which have returned to record lows after a slight hike following the jihadist attacks in Paris in January, when he was credited with rallying the country.
Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll preferred to blame Sunday's poor showing on a lack of unity among France's left-wing parties.
"The right was united in 1,200 or 1,300 cantons, while the left was united in barely 400 or 430 -- that was the big difference," he said, referring to a French administrative division below departments.
© 2015 AFP