The ruling Socialist Party has reacted with alarm to the strong showing by the extreme right-wing National Front (FN) in a byelection in southern France.
The results of the cantonal election in Brignoles, in the Var department, were widely interpreted as a harbinger of advances by Marine Le Pen’s party in next year’s municipal and European elections.
FN candidate Laurent Lopez took 40.4 per cent of the vote in the first round on Sunday, almost double the 20.8 per cent won by his nearest rival, from the mainstream conservative UMP. A candidate from a breakaway faction of the FN won 9.1 per cent, giving the far right 49.5 per cent in the first round.
The socialists did not contest the election and the communist and green candidates did not qualify for the runoff next Sunday. Two previous elections for the councillor’s post had been annulled, and abstention was high.
The French left has now lost eight legislative and three cantonal byelections in the past year. Jean-François Copé, leader of the UMP, said Sunday’s vote confirmed “the electoral collapse of the left in our country. Yet again, all the left-wing candidates have been eliminated in the first round of a byelection.”
Ms Le Pen has worked assiduously to "normalise" the FN since she succeeded her father, Jean-Marie, as leader in 2011. A TNS-Sofres-Figaro poll published at the weekend shows she is tied for the rank of France's third-most popular politician. In a poll by the Nouvel Observateur magazine yesterday, 24 per cent of respondents said they could vote for the FN.
Ms Le Pen has threatened to sue media who refer to the FN as "extreme right". Her father lost lawsuits for the same grievance against Le Monde and Libération newspapers in 1996. "I plan to go to the tribunals to have it established that this term is pejorative and is used in a political way to denigrate the FN," she said. "It's an insult. It's a way of waging semantic war against the FN."
"Of course the FN is gaining strength. There's a real loss of confidence in politics," said Anne Hidalgo, Paris deputy mayor and the socialist candidate to become mayor next March. "We must continue to fight the FN. It is an extreme right- wing party, which I consider a danger to democracy."
Ms Hidalgo and other socialists blamed the “republican right” for “breaking down the barriers” to respectability for the FN. Former conservative prime minister François Fillon sparked an outcry with his advice to UMP voters last month. When choosing between socialist and FN candidates, Mr Fillon said, they should choose the “least sectarian”.