Last updated: March 23, 2014 9:40 pm

Hollande hit by National Front vote in municipal elections

Francois Hollande leaves a polling booth before casting his ballot for the first round in the French mayoral elections at a polling station in Tulle, central France©Reuters

France’s far-right National Front (FN) stunned President François Hollande’s socialist government in nationwide municipal elections on Sunday, attracting a surge of support in mayoral races in large parts of the country.

The FN, led by the charismatic Marine Le Pen, won outright its first mayoral seat since 1995 and appeared well placed to gain other towns in run-off votes next Sunday.

The mainstream centre-right UMP party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy was also leading the Socialist incumbent in several cities in the first countrywide electoral test of Mr Hollande’s deeply unpopular two-year old presidency.

But UMP gains were overshadowed by the FN’s breakthrough. The populist party won the northern town of Hénin-Beaumont, a former industrial centre it had long targeted, in Sunday’s first round of voting, easily unseating the socialist incumbent.

Ms Le Pen’s partner Louis Aliot also scored a big lead in Perpignan in southern France, making him the favourite to win the biggest city the party had governed since it briefly held Toulon in the mid-1990s.

The party also led the contest in Avignon in the south, the Mediterranean town of Fréjus and Forbach in the northeast, with an associated party leading in Béziers.

A triumphant Ms Le Pen said the trend presaged “the end of the two-party domination” of French politics. “The National Front has arrived as a major independent force – a political force both at the national and local level,” she said.

The party has risen steadily in the polls recently, benefiting from widespread disillusion with the two main parties in the face of high unemployment and sluggish growth.

The socialists appeared to have suffered from a record low turnout of 61.5 per cent as many of its disappointed voters stayed at home.

Najat-Vallaud Belkacem, cabinet minister and official spokeswoman for the government, said the Socialist party would “do everything” to stop the FN winning more towns.

The government is confident its losses will be offset by the flagship battle in Paris where Anne Hidalgo, socialist candidate, remains favourite to succeed Bertrand Delanoë, Socialist mayor for the past 13 years, despite coming a close second in the first round to Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the UMP candidate. A rallying of the overall leftist vote next week is set to favour Ms Hidalgo.

But Socialist hopes of unseating the UMP in Marseille were dealt a severe blow when its candidate came third in the first round behind the UMP and the surging FN.

The UMP, also aiming to cash in on Mr Hollande’s unpopularity, was in the lead in a number of important Socialist held cities, including Toulouse, Strasbourg, Saint-Etienne, Amiens and Reims, the capital of champagne country.

The outcome could influence an anticipated government reshuffle in the coming weeks as Mr Hollande seeks to galvanise his flagging administration.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, prime minister, and Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, have both faced speculation that they will be replaced as Mr Hollande pursues his recent pro-business policy shift. He has promised to cut France’s high labour costs and taxes and reduce the heavy burden on the economy of public spending.

The FN fielded candidates in only a minority of the country’s near 37,000 municipalities but aims to use its success to build a platform for Ms Le Pen’s 2017 presidential campaign. It is also aiming to cause a bigger shock in the European parliamentary elections at the end of May where it competes nationwide.

Polls have shown the FN pressing the UMP for first place in those elections, with the socialists trailing in third place.

A run-off vote in the municipal elections will be held next Sunday in all places where no candidate won 50 per cent in the first round. All candidates winning more than 10 per cent qualify for the second round.

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