French Socialists try to reclaim ground after poll bruising
France's ruling Socialists scrambled Monday to recover lost ground after the far-right made huge inroads in the first round of local elections widely seen as a slap in the face for the country's deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande.
The far better than expected results by the Eurosceptic and anti-immigration National Front (FN), combined with the lowest turnout ever in French municipal elections, was also seen by some as a barometer of sweeping public disenchantment.
"Francois Hollande must draw the conclusions from a vote that is clearly addressed to him," the left-leaning Liberation daily said, describing the results as a "slap" in the face for the embattled president who is suffering record unpopularity against a backdrop of near-zero growth and high unemployment.
"The record figures of the National Front and the rise in the number of abstentions are... symptoms of an ailing democracy," it said.
Turnout was abysmally low on Sunday with 38.72 percent shunning the ballot, a low number for France.
According to preliminary results, the main opposition centre-right UMP party and allies took 47 percent of the vote nationwide, while the Socialist party and allies took 38 percent, and the FN five percent -- far higher than its 0.9 percent result in the first round of 2008 municipal polls.
"Punished," said the popular Le Parisien daily, referring to Hollande, for whom the local elections marked the first electoral test since taking power two years ago after unseating the UMP's Nicolas Sarkozy.
- FN will only bring 'tears' -
Hollande's Socialists on Monday made impassioned pleas to voters, seeking support for the deciding round on March 30 and urging them to come out in droves.
"Do not sacrifice the town halls and the teams which have delivered at the local level," said National Assembly Speaker Claude Bartolone.
He said although the FN, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now headed by his daughter Marine, had tried to detoxify the party's image, it "still puts forward the same arguments of hatred and division."
Bruno Le Roux, the leader of the Socialists in the National Assembly, warned of "tears" wherever the FN was elected, saying its stewardship of cities in the past were marked by nepotism, stigmatisation and changed cultural policies.
But an ecstatic Marine Le Pen, whose candidates came ahead in several key towns and cities that will put them in pole position in the second round, said the polls marked the "end of the bipolarisation of the political scene".
"We will lower taxes in all the cities managed by us," she said on Monday. "Systematically. It's an emergency because the French can no longer manage."
In the former coal-mining town of Henin-Beaumont in northern France, FN candidate Steeve Briois achieved 50.3 percent, an absolute majority which made him the outright winner and mayor.
Under municipal election rules in France, any candidate who gets more than 50 percent is declared the winner and there is no need for a second round.
The FN hopes to claim the mayorship of 10 to 15 mid-sized towns after the second round, and if it achieves that, it will have beaten its previous record in 1997 when it had four mayors.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also called on voters to rally in the second round to block the "advance of the FN".
"Where the National Front is in a situation where it could win the second round, all democratic and Republican forces have the responsibility to create the conditions to stop it from doing so," he said.
The leader of the UMP party meanwhile called on those who had voted for the FN to "carry over their vote" onto UMP candidates in the second round.
Jean-Francois Cope predicted a "big victory" for his party in the second round, in a sign that corruption scandals that have affected the UMP as well as former president Sarkozy had little impact.
In the French capital, the UMP was encouraged by an unexpected lead won by former Sarkozy minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who is competing against Anne Hidalgo, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, in a fierce battle that will see Paris get its first ever female mayor.
© 2014 AFP