France’s anti-euro National Front won a local by-election in the country’s south, riding on the discontent with Francois Hollande’s Socialist presidency and the disarray in the Opposition UMP party.
The National Front candidate Laurent Lopez took 53.9 percent of the vote in the town of Brignoles yesterday to win a seat on the local department’s council. Catherine Delzers, the candidate of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, won 46.1 percent, according to France 2 television.
Although a relatively minor election, the victory is a warning to both the Socialists and the UMP that Marine Le Pen’s National Front may be turning into a party that speaks for the dissatisfaction of a population grappling with the highest unemployment in about 14 years and an economy that has struggled to grow over the last two years.
“This vote shows that the French have a wish for change, that we bring solutions for the questions the French are asking,” Le Pen said on LCI television yesterday.
With major municipal elections in France coming up in March and European parliamentary ballots in May, the victory puts both the Socialists and the UMP on notice to find ways to stem the rising popularity of the National Front.
“The only response is to get results: on jobs, on growth, on security,” Hollande said today at a press conference in South Africa, where he’s on a state visit. “The policies of the past 16 months have asked for a lot of efforts from the French and they have a right to demand results. The government’s work must be aimed solely at this.”
In the first round of the Brignoles election on Oct. 6, Lopez took 40.4 percent, Delzers 20.8 percent, and the candidate of Hollande’s party was eliminated. In an effort to defeat the National Front in the second round, Socialist leaders had called on voters to back the UMP candidate.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said today at a Paris press conference that “Brignoles is not France,” noting that Hollande took 42 percent there in the second round of the 2012 presidential election, versus 52 percent nationwide.
Le Pen said efforts by the two traditional parties to block the National Front showed it’s now the country’s largest party.
Since 2011, when she replaced her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as the National Front’s leader, the 45-year-old has sought to lose its image as a group of anti-Semites and right-wingers to gain more mainstream appeal. She threatened this month to sue anyone who describes the party as “extreme right.”
The by-election yesterday was for one of the 43 seats on the department’s council, one of 101 such local assemblies in France. Only 33 percent of registered voters voted in the first round, while 45 percent turned out for the second round.
“This doesn’t mean that we can win in every town obviously, but our message is getting out,” Le Pen said.
An Ifop poll Oct. 9 put the National Front as the largest party in France for the first time, with 24 percent of the French saying they’d vote for it in next May’s European elections, up from 21 percent in previous poll in May. UMP was second at 22 percent and the Socialists third at 19 percent.
Political analysts have warned that the European elections tend to be a magnet for protest votes, making the poll’s results hard to interpret.
Still, the prospects of growing support for the anti-immigrant National Front is worrying Socialist leaders.
“It would be dramatic to see someone elected who does not carry the values of the Republic,” Bruno Le Roux, the Socialist Party’s whip in parliament, said Oct. 11 on Europe1 radio, calling on voters to back the UMP in Brignoles.
Le Pen polled 18 percent in the first round of the presidential elections in April 2012. The National Front has two members in the 577-seat National Assembly.
While her father was convicted for making racist and anti-Semitic comments, she has recast the party to focus on economic issues and French sovereignty.
She wants France to limit immigration, toughen jail sentences, withdraw from the euro, impose trade barriers, force the Bank of France to fund the government and return the retirement age to 60.
UMP party head Jean-Francois Cope said Oct. 10 on France2 that the “the National Front is amusing to look at, but its policies amount to a programmed economic suicide”
Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici today said the National Front remains an extremist party.
“There’s a national message and it’s a worrying message for those of us who love democracy,” he said. “When a party is euro-phobic, when it is Islam-phobic, when it is against globalization, when it is for national preference above all, it’s a party whose roots are in the extreme right.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org