National Front tipped to win French town
The anti-immigrant party's list took 39 percent of the vote Sunday in the first round of a by-election in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont.Henin Beaumont -- France's far-right National Front, in decline since the firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in the 2002 presidential race, was tipped Monday to take its first town hall in 15 years.
The anti-immigrant party's list took 39 percent of the vote Sunday in the first round of a by-election in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont held after the Socialist mayor was jailed on charges of embezzling millions of euros.
The list, featuring Le Pen's daughter Marine who campaigned for a clean-up of the former mining town's disastrous finances, took twice the number of votes of the runner-up left-wing list.
The National Front has not won control of a council in a French town since local elections in 1995 gave its candidates several municipalities in the south.
"It's doable," said Marine Le Pen, whose National Front colleague Steeve Briois would become mayor of the town of 26,000 people if the party list is victorious, after the first round result was announced.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and the mainstream Socialist opposition called for voters to bar the National Front from gaining control after the second round of voting next Sunday.
"Even a National Front that does not get the scores it achieved ten years ago remains by definition the symbol of everything we do not want in the republic," said UMP parliamentary leader Jean-Francois Cope.
The UMP and the Socialists both urged voters to back the left-wing list -- which included candidates from various leftist parties but not from the Socialists -- in order to block the far right.
Marine Le Pen fired back at efforts to block the National Front in a telephone interview with AFP, asking: "What are they so afraid of? What are they so scared we will find out if we are elected?"
Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has several convictions for racism and anti-Semitism, shocked Europe in 2002 by making it into the second round of a presidential election where Jacques Chirac eventually defeated him.
A former Foreign Legionnaire who served as an intelligence officer in Algeria and as a paratrooper in Indochina, the 81-year-old Le Pen has been the champion of the French far right for nearly four decades.
He recently caused a storm in the EU parliament by again insisting that the Nazi death camps were a "detail of second world war history." Le Pen had been fined 1.2 million francs (185,000 euros, 290,000 dollars) for making the initial remarks in 1987.
His party has been a fixture on the French political landscape for decades, often taking around 15 percent of the vote in national elections.
But since the 2002 success its fortunes have declined, with Le Pen winning around 10 percent of votes two years ago in the presidential race that brought Sarkozy to power.
Sarkozy has successfully lured away many National Front voters by taking a hard line on law and order and immigration issues.
The National Front's poor showing in the 2007 parliamentary election, too low for it to reclaim expenses from the state, left it saddled with debt and forced to sell off its headquarters in the posh Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud.
The party's European election score slumped from 10 percent in 2004 to just six per cent in the most recent vote earlier this month, leaving Jean-Marie Le Pen as one of only three members with a seat in the EU parliament.
Le Pen, 81, has recently been taking a back seat in the party's affairs and delegating to his daughter Marine.
She has sought to give the National Front a less extremist face but the party, which is also hit by infighting over the succession to Le Pen, is nevertheless seen as a pariah by France's political establishment.