May 26 (Bloomberg) -- French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the European Union needs to respond to the “earthquake’ of the National Front’s first-ever victory in nationwide voting in European parliamentary elections.
The anti-euro, anti-immigration party headed by Marine Le Pen won 26 percent of the vote, giving it a third of France’s 74 seats in the European Parliament, according to the French Interior Ministry. Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP Party placed second with 20.7 percent and the ruling Socialist Party came in a distant third, with 14 percent.
‘‘Europe has disappointed,” Valls said in a televised address late yesterday from Paris. “Europe needs to give hope again. We need a Europe that is stronger, with more solidarity, more fairness.”
The results dealt a further blow to President Francois Hollande, the least popular leader in France’s modern history. The gains made by the National Front -- or FN as the party founded by the 45-year-old’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen is known - - helps it boost its credibility even as it remains on the fringes of power nationally.
“Thirty years after its appearance on the national scene, the National Front leads a national vote for the first time,” said Frederic Dabi, head of Ifop’s opinion studies. “The FN has succeeded in its strategy of legitimizing itself.”
Like in France, parties with anti-European Union views were poised to make gains in Greece, the U.K. and Germany with such sentiments mounting after the sovereign debt crisis.
In France, the FN, which got 6 percent of the vote at the last European parliamentary elections in 2009, has quadrupled its score. Its support has been driven by growing discontent with jobless claims at a record of more than 3 million and an economy that has barely grown in two years.
Valls pledged to press ahead with Hollande’s plan to overhaul France’s economy and reduce the budget deficit.
“France is in a crisis of confidence, and we must get through it,” Valls said. “We need to be courageous. France must reform; it must reduce its deficit.”
The European elections often produce extreme results because of protest votes and low turnouts, and a first place finish doesn’t mean Le Pen is any closer to achieving her aim of one day becoming the president of France. Yet it would help widen the appeal of the party she took charge of in 2011, making it difficult for opponents to dismiss her as an extremist.
Voter turnout was 43.2 percent compared with 40.6 percent in 2009. In the 2012 presidential elections it was 80 percent.
“We can try to relativize by saying that the largest party in this election was abstentionism, but you can’t hide the shock that for the first time ever the National Front leads a national vote,” Socialist Party spokesman Olivier Faure said on i-Tele.
“It will give France a very particular image, everyone will be looking at us differently.”
The European elections, which divide France into just eight constituencies and use proportional representation, are much better suited to upstart parties.
The National Front’s motto for the elections is “Yes to France, no to Brussels.” The FN’s program calls for returning to the franc, ending free-trade talks with the U.S., and restoring national borders.
The FN’s lead in the European vote comes close on the heels of the gains the party made in the French municipal elections in March. Le Pen also polled 18 percent in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. Since taking over from her father, Le Pen has avoided any openly racist and anti-Semitic themes, instead focusing the party on social and economic issues.
“The sovereign people have spoken loud and clear,” Le Pen said yesterday. “The sovereign people have said they want to take back the reigns of their future. They don’t want to be ruled from overseas by laws they never chose or voted on. They have given us the formidable responsibility to act on the choices they have made tonight.”
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