French Socialists switch tactics after poll bruising

French far-right party Front National (FN) president Marine Le Pen (L) speaks to journalists before she arrives to the FN Headquarters for a meeting in Nanterre on March 24, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA)

PARIS: France’s ruling Socialists Monday responded to a stinging electoral setback by unveiling plans to block a potential breakthrough by the far-right National Front (FN) in nationwide local elections.

In a vote widely expected to trigger a far-reaching cabinet reshuffle by President Francois Hollande, the anti-immigration FN is on track to take control of up to 15 towns across the country following a better-than-expected showing in Sunday’s first round of voting.

Candidates from Marine Le Pen’s FN will contest second-round, run-off votes this coming Sunday in an unprecedented 315 municipalities and are well-placed to win more than a dozen of them having already claimed one mayor’s seat, in the depressed former mining town of Henin Beaumont, by claiming an overall majority at the first attempt.

In a bid to reduce the impact of the FN’s surge, the Socialists announced they would be joining forces with the Greens and the Communist Party to present joint lists where it can reduce the chances of an FN win in the second round.

Party First Secretary Harlem Desir, a veteran anti-FN campaigner, also announced that the PS would stand down its candidate in the southern town of St. Gilles to give the mainstream center-right a better chance of defeating the FN candidate who topped the first round poll.

Pundits were unanimous in portraying the FN’s success and an unusually high abstention rate as a sign of the electorate’s anger, exasperation and disillusionment with Hollande’s administration, which has appeared rudderless at times as it grapples with a stagnating economy and record unemployment.

“The economic crisis has exacerbated a search for authority, and there has been a general hardening of attitudes toward foreigners throughout French society, which the National Front has benefited from,” said Nonna Mayer, a political analyst at the CNRS think tank.

Hollande is expected to announce significant changes to the government lineup in the aftermath of the election debacle, with lackluster Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s position widely thought to be on the line.

Popular Interior Minister Manuel Valls is tipped to replace Ayrault, while the president’s former partner, Segolene Royal, is expected to be brought back from the political wilderness.

Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children, is a longstanding Socialist Party heavyweight who was reportedly left out of the current government on the insistence of the woman who replaced her as the president’s girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler. That is no longer an issue as Hollande and Trierweiler separated in January following the revelation of his affair with actress Julie Gayet (who is friendly with Royal).

“Francois Hollande must draw the conclusions from a vote that is clearly addressed to him,” the left-leaning Liberation daily said, describing the results as a “slap” in the face for the embattled president, currently the most unpopular leader in recent French history.

“The record figures of the National Front and the rise in the number of abstentions are ... symptoms of an ailing democracy,” it said.

Voter turnout Sunday was just over 61 percent of the electorate: respectable in most countries but a record low in France.

The main opposition center-right UMP party and allies took 47 percent of the vote nationwide, while the Socialists and allies took 38 percent. The FN accounted for 5 percent of votes cast nationwide but was only fielding candidates in a small number of selected municipalities.

Le Pen’s party scored far better in a number of midsized towns in the southeast of the country, traditionally fertile ground for the far-right, and in several depressed pockets of northern France, as well as claiming nearly a quarter of the votes cast in France’s second city, Marseille.

“Punished,” was the Le Parisien daily’s verdict on Hollande’s first electoral test since taking power two years ago after unseating the UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy.

Socialist MPs appealed to supporters to make sure they turned out for the second round.

National Assembly Speaker Claude Bartolone said they should resist Marine Le Pen’s attempts to transform the image of the FN, which remains tainted by association to its founder, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a veteran Holocaust denier with multiple convictions for racism.

“The FN still puts forward the same arguments of hatred and division,” Bartolone said.

Marine Le Pen claimed the FN’s success marked an end to two-party politics in France.

In a reference to the cronyism that has marked the party’s previous attempts to manage towns, she vowed that her followers would run model administrations.

“We will lower taxes in all the cities managed by us,” Le Pen said.

In Paris, the UMP was encouraged by an unexpected lead won by former Sarkozy minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who is competing against Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo. The outcome sets the scene for a tense runoff to decide who will be the capital’s first female mayor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 25, 2014, on page 10.




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