French right deals major blow to ruling Socialists in local elections
France's ruling Socialists took a drubbing in run-off local polls on Sunday that saw major gains for former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the far-right ahead of 2017 presidential elections.
Right-wing parties, spearheaded by Sarkozy's UMP, won a thumping victory, taking between 65 and 71 councils out of a possible 98, according to projections from a range of pollsters.
Voters punished the Socialist government of President Francois Hollande for failing to revive the slumping economy, with left-wing parties projected to take only between 28 and 37 councils.
"Never... has our political family won so many councils," Sarkozy told cheering supporters, adding that voters had "massively rejected the policies of Francois Hollande and his government."
The far-right National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen, which took a quarter of the vote in the first round last week, was not expected to win any councils -- in part because mainstream voters combine to keep it out of power in second-round run-offs.
Deputy leader Florian Philippot told AFP on Sunday evening he was "sure" the party would not win any.
But it won dozens of individual seats across the country, leading Le Pen to hail a "magnificent success" that showed it was "a powerful force" in many local areas, building on its victorious showing in last year's European elections.
"These elections are a crucial step for the patriot movement on its road to power," said Le Pen.
But the big winner was Sarkozy, who had used an energetic campaign to rebuild his status as a serious contender after being criticised for being distant, preoccupied and even bored since returning to frontline politics in September.
Sarkozy's decision to ally his right-wing UMP with centrists has been welcomed by voters, who punished his shift further to the right to rival the FN during the 2012 presidential campaign.
- Socialist 'setback' -
Meanwhile, the Socialists fear their poor showing in the local "departments", which control issues such as school and welfare budgets, could spell doom in the regional and presidential polls to come.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged that the leftist Socialists had suffered a "setback" in the elections and stressed that the FN's score was "far too high."
"The French have declared... their anger at a daily life that is too difficult," he said, vowing to "redouble" the government's efforts to pep up the French economy, the second biggest in the eurozone.
Hollande has seen his popularity ratings plummet back to record lows after a slight bump after the January jihadist attacks in Paris, when he was credited with bringing the country together.
"Everyone in the (Elysee) is scared he will be eliminated in the first round in 2017," a presidential advisor told AFP, adding that Hollande had no choice but to continue unpopular austerity reforms that have alienated the public and many in his own party.
Gilles Finchelstein, a political strategist close to the Socialists, painted an even darker picture in an article for L'Express magazine, saying "the left is in danger of dying, (and) risks becoming nothing more than a residual political force".
Around 40 million French were eligible to vote in the local elections, and around half were estimated to have turned out.
Despite fears among mainstream parties that the momentum behind the FN could propel Le Pen into the presidential palace in 2017, analysts still say it is unlikely.
"The FN is nowhere near to taking national power. Yes, she's had recent successes," said political scientist Nonna Mayer.
"(But) it's mad to imagine Marine Le Pen in the Elysee."
© 2015 AFP