French National Front Gains in Local Vote as Socialists Lag

France’s anti-euro National Front party gained ground in the first round of municipal elections yesterday as voters showed disappointment with President Francois Hollande’s Socialists.

In Paris, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet of Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, led Socialist Anne Hidalgo by a margin of 35.6 percent to 34.4 percent, according to estimates by Le Parisien newspaper. With about 4.65 percent of the vote nationwide, the National Front estimates it has won 472 council seats and will contest another 315 in the second round of voting March 30.

The gains made by the National Front across the country reflect Hollande’s unpopularity after 22 months in office and infighting among lawmakers of Sarkozy’s UMP. The first nationwide voting since Hollande took power show growing discontent with jobless claims at a record of more than 3 million and an economy that has barely grown in two years.

The vote reveals a “bitter France, it’s more true than ever,” said Yves-Marie Cann, head of research at pollster CSA in Paris. “It’s a France that feels left behind.”

Sarkozy’s UMP took 46.5 percent of all local votes combined, compared with 37.7 percent for the Socialists, according to Le Parisien estimates. The participation rate fell to about 54.7 percent from 56.3 percent in the first round of local elections in 2008.

All 36,000 French municipalities held elections yesterday with run-off votes to be held next Sunday in cities where mayoral candidates didn’t win 50 percent in first round.

Le Pen

The National Front led voting in the first round of mayoral elections in cities including Perpignan, Nimes, Avignon, and Frejus, according to early results from the Interior Ministry.

“It used to be that when the Socialists failed, UMP would benefit and vice versa -- that’s over,” National Front leader Marine Le Pen said on RMC. “People are confused between the Socialists and UMP. With both parties people expect a rise in taxes.”

In Marseille, France’s second-largest city, the UMP candidate was in first place, and will face off next Sunday against a Socialist and a National Front candidate, France2 said.

Former prime minister and foreign minister Alain Juppe won Bordeaux outright in the first round with more than 60 percent of the vote. Juppe, a possible contender for the national leadership of the UMP, was first elected mayor of the southwestern wine capital in 1995.

‘Damaged Country’

Christian Estrosi, industry minister under Sarkozy, won 45 percent of the vote, suggesting he’ll hang on to the mayor’s chair in Nice after next week’s run-off.

In Lille, Socialist incumbent Martine Aubry retained the lead in voting with about 35 percent of the vote, though that’s about 10 points less than she garnered in the first round of voting in 2008. Similarly in Lyon, Socialist incumbent Gerard Collomb retained 36 percent of the vote, though he won outright in the first round of voting in 2008.

Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said France’s lagging economic performance is in part a legacy of Sarkozy’s years in office and that Hollande is pushing through reforms that will take time to bear fruit.

“Francois Hollande is undertaking an extremely difficult task -- straightening out a damaged country,” Moscovici said today in Europe 1 radio. “We’re ready to take all the measures necessary so that France can stay a credible country with regard to public finances.”

All voting results are estimates with votes still being counted. Final and official results will be provided by France’s Interior Ministry later today or tomorrow.

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