Socialists hammered in French vote as far-right makes breakthrough
France's ruling Socialist Party suffered heavy losses in nationwide local elections Sunday which were marked by a breakthrough success for the far-right National Front.
In a rare consolation on a bleak night for President Francois Hollande's party, the Socialists held on to control of Paris, where Anne Hidalgo will become the first female mayor of the French capital after a victory that was far more comfortable than anyone had expected.
Exit polls published as ballots closed indicated the National Front (FN) had won two mid-sized towns and was on track to claim 1,200 municipal council seats nationwide in what one prominent activist described as the biggest electoral success in the party's history.
Exit polls indicated that candidates backed by Marine Le Pen's party had secured the mayor's seat in the southern towns of Beziers and Frejus, but missed out on key targets elsewhere.
"We have moved onto a new level," Le Pen said minutes after the polls closed. "There is now a third major political force in our country."
Le Pen said she was confident the vote counting would conclude with at least six towns in the hands of her party. That would represent a major breakthrough but would be significantly less than the dozen municipalities the FN had identified as winnable after its better-than-expected showing in last Sunday's first round.
The historic festival city of Avignon, where the FN had headed the first round vote, remained under left-wing control and Le Pen's party also failed to win the northeastern town of Forbach and the southern city of Perpignan, both of which had been amongst their top objectives.
The centre-right UMP also claimed to have had a successful night, describing itself as the principal victor in the first electoral test for President Francois Hollande's government since his 2012 election.
An OpinionWay poll for Le Figaro suggested the UMP and its allies had taken 45 percent of the votes cast nationwide in municipalities of more than 1,000 residents, while the Socialists and other left-wing parties took 43 percent and the FN, which was only standing in a small number of communes, took seven percent.
- A 'severe warning' -
"We have had a very severe warning," acknowledged Segolene Royal, Hollande's former partner who is tipped for a return to government in the reshuffle that is expected to follow in the wake of Sunday's electoral debacle.
The Socialists were not helped by a turnout estimated at around 62 percent of the electorate, which is low by French local election standards and was largely explained by large numbers of voters who traditionally support the left staying at home.
The low turnout had pointed to an extremely close outcome in Paris.
But, in the end, Hidalgo emerged as a comfortable winner in her battle with former conservative minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet to join a very small club of women in charge of major cities around the world.
The FN's success at these elections has been widely interpreted as reflecting exasperation among voters with the Hollande government.
The Socialists' failure to get a stagnant economy moving and reverse the upward march of unemployment is seen as having aggravated anger over other issues, such as crime and immigration, and increased disillusionment with mainstream politicians of all stripes.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is widely expected to be made the principal scapegoat for the government's failures when Hollande takes stock on Monday morning.
Popular Interior Minister Manuel Valls, a dapper and tough-talking character who has broad appeal across the political spectrum, is the favourite to replace him.
Adding a bit of soap opera drama to proceedings is the likelihood of a comeback by Royal following the president's separation from girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler in January.
Trierweiler, who was dumped after it emerged Hollande was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet, had reportedly wielded a veto over Royal's mooted inclusion in Hollande's first cabinet.
Now however, the mother of Hollande's four children is being tipped to get a major new portfolio spanning education, science and youth.
The FN meanwhile faces a test of its ability to run the towns it has won competently. That has generally not been the case when the party has secured mayoral positions in the past.
Le Pen, who has made strenuous efforts to forge a new, more respectable image for the party founded by her father Jean-Marie, is looking to establish a local base that will allow the FN to prove it is more than a protest movement in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election.
Le Pen, who took over the FN leadership in 2011, has been credited with broadening the appeal of a party regarded as taboo by many voters in light of her father's repeated convictions for Holocaust denial and inciting racial hatred.
© 2014 AFP