French President Francois Hollande is set to take the ax to his beleaguered government after it suffered humiliating losses in local elections in which the far-right National Front (FN) made historic gains.
The outcome of the first nationwide vote since Hollande was elected in 2012 was described as “Black Sunday” by one Socialist lawmaker.
The FN won control of 11 towns and was on track to claim more than 1,200 municipal council seats nationwide, its best ever showing at the grassroots level of French politics and a stunning vindication of leader Marine Le Pen’s efforts to extend its appeal.
It was also a night to savor for France’s main opposition, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
The party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy performed strongly across the country, seizing control of a string of towns and cities, including some once considered bastions of the left.
In a rare consolation for Hollande, the Socialists held on to control of Paris, where Anne Hidalgo, 54, will become the first female mayor of the French capital after a victory that was far more comfortable than anyone had expected.
But Limoges, a town that had been run by the left for 102 years, fell to the UMP, as did Toulouse, the Champagne capital Reims and Saint Etienne. A total of 155 towns with more than 9,000 residents swung from left to right.
“It has been a black Sunday,” said Socialist deputy Jean-Christophe Cambadelis.
The biggest towns won by the FN or FN-backed candidates were Beziers and Frejus in the south. The mayor’s seat in a district of Marseille was among eight others won on Sunday, adding to the FN’s first-round election victory in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont.
“We have moved onto a new level,” Le Pen claimed. “There is now a third major political force in our country.
“We will destroy this idea that the FN represents some sort of threat to the Republic. Our elected candidates will show that they are good mayors.”
Nationwide, the UMP and its allies took just under 46 percent of the votes cast, nationwide, the Socialists and other left-wing parties 40.5 percent and the FN and some smaller far right groups just under seven percent.
A ‘severe warning’
“We have had a very severe warning,” acknowledged Segolene Royal, Hollande’s former partner who is tipped for a return to government in the reshuffle that is expected to follow in the wake of the electoral rout.
The Socialists were not helped by a turnout estimated at around 62 percent of the electorate, which is low by French local election standards and was largely explained by large numbers of left-leaning voters staying at home.
The low turnout had pointed to a close contest in Paris.
But, in the end, Hidalgo emerged as a comfortable winner in her battle with former UMP minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet to join a very small club of women in charge of major cities around the world.
The FN’s success at these elections has been widely interpreted as reflecting exasperation among voters with the Hollande government.
The Socialists’ failure to get a stagnant economy moving and reverse the upward march of unemployment is seen as having aggravated anger over other issues, such as crime and immigration, and increased disillusionment with mainstream politicians of all stripes.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is widely expected to be made the principal scapegoat for the government’s failures when Hollande takes stock on Monday morning.
“The message the voters have sent is very clear and must be clearly heard,” Ayrault said.
Popular Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has broad appeal across the political spectrum, is the favourite to replace him.
Adding a bit of soap opera drama to proceedings is the likelihood of a comeback by Royal following the president’s separation from girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler in January.
Trierweiler, who was dumped after it emerged Hollande was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet, had reportedly wielded a veto over Royal’s mooted inclusion in Hollande’s first cabinet.
Now however, the mother of Hollande’s four children is being tipped to get a major new portfolio spanning education, science and youth.
The FN meanwhile faces a test of its ability to run the towns it has won. That has generally not been the case when the party has secured a handful of mayoral positions in the past.
Le Pen, who has made strenuous efforts to forge a new, more respectable image for the party founded by her father Jean-Marie, is looking to establish a local base that will allow the FN to prove it is more than a protest movement in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election.
Le Pen, who took over the FN leadership in 2011, has been credited with broadening the appeal of a party regarded as taboo by many voters in light of her father’s repeated convictions for Holocaust denial and inciting racial hatred.