French far-right leader of the National Front Party, Marine Le Pen leaves a car after to vote in the European elections, Sunday, May 25, 2014, in Henin-Beaumont, northern France. The National Front, which also wants to unravel the European Union and withdraw France from the euro currency, hopes to win up to 20 of France's 74 European Parliament seats in their Sunday vote. It currently holds just two seats, but polls show it running neck-and-neck with the conservative UMP party and well ahead of the governing Socialists.(AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front

France’s far-right Front National stormed to victory in European elections on Sunday night, leading an unprecedented surge in support for anti-EU parties across Europe that was set to reverberate far beyond Brussels politics.

The FN, led by Marine le Pen, claimed victory against both the centre-right UMP and President François Hollande’s ruling Socialist party for the first time in a nationwide vote, a stunning defeat for the mainstream parties in Europe’s second-largest economy.

The party took 26 per cent of the vote, with the main opposition UMP on 21 per cent and the governing Socialists on 14 per cent.

Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, called the FN victory “a shock, an earthquake that all responsible leaders must respond to”.

Ms Le Pen said the victory for the fiercely anti-EU and anti-immigration FN was an “immense honour”, declaring: “What has happened tonight is a massive rejection of the EU.”

She said it was the “first step in a long march” to the “recovery of our identity” from the EU and the end of austerity policies.

The FN was expected to take 25 of France’s 74 seats in the European parliament, up from the three seats it won in the last election in 2009. It was the most dramatic result achieved by the party since Ms Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen won through to the final round of the presidential election in 2002.

The biggest exercise in democracy outside India was also set to crown Nigel Farage’s UK Independence party and Greece’s Syriza as the largest parties in their respective countries, according to early results.

“It is always very dangerous to count your chickens before they hatch but given the data coming across the United Kingdom it does look like Ukip is going to win this election and yes that will be an earthquake,” said Mr Farage.

Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement formed by comedian Beppe Grillo were also set to do well but is likely to end behind prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic party.

In Germany, the neo-Nazi party was expected to win one seat in the assembly for the first time. The anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland party was set to get 7 per cent.

Jean-Francois Copé, president of the UMP, conceded defeat in France, saying the FN vote was a sign of “gigantic anger” among the French electorate against the policies of Mr Hollande. The Socialist party, also hammered in local elections in March, was beaten into third place in one of its worst election defeats in France.

“Populist politicians like Farage and Le Pen are winning so many votes because they are the anti-establishment voice,” said Tim Newark, author of Protest Vote. “Voters are fed up with mainstream party politicians who all sound the same and can deliver very little. The populists have an authenticity about what they say …voters like that.”

Doubts over whether there would be a surge in populist parties were raised on Thursday after the Dutch far-right Freedom Party (PVV) led by the silver-haired Geert Wilders saw its support drop significantly in exit polls with the PVV finishing third with 13 per cent, down from 17 per cent in 2009 elections.

However, the broader anti-EU sentiment and expectations of a record low turnout are likely to put the spotlight on the increasing discontent Europeans have for the EU project in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis that caused record unemployment.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, said: “When assessing the results, the fact that this election follows the biggest financial, economic and ultimately social crisis in decades must be kept in mind.”

Ukip is forecast to be the biggest winner in the UK’s European race seizing 30 per cent of the popular vote and securing 24 seats in the EU assembly, 11 more than in 2009.

Among other eurosceptic parties, the Danish People’s party was set to become the biggest in Denmark with about 25 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile, Austria’s populist party, the FPÖ, is set to finish third with 20 per cent of the vote – against 12.7 per cent in 2009.

The gains of the populists could be sufficient for Ms Le Pen to form an anti-EU group with other like-minded parties. That would give them extra funds and speaking rights to destroy the “Brussels monster”.

According to exit polls released by the European Parliament, the European People’s party centre-right grouping in the assembly is set to win the elections with 212 seats, followed by the Socialists with 185; the Liberals with 71; and the Greens 55. Eurosceptic and anti-establishment parties from both left and right won 228 seats.

Voter turnout across the continent was estimated at 43.11 per cent, practically unchanged from 2009.

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