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French far-right hammer ruling Socialists in polls

PARIS--France's far-right National Front party dealt a major blow to the ruling Socialists Sunday after several of its candidates took prime position in the first round of local elections.

The main center-right opposition UMP party also hailed a “big victory” as initial estimates showed it came out trumps in the elections, as President Francois Hollande suffers record unpopularity against a backdrop of near-zero growth and high unemployment.

According to preliminary results from the interior ministry, the UMP and allies took 47 percent of the vote nationwide while the Socialist party and allies took 38 percent, and the FN five percent — far higher than its 0.9 percent result in the first round of 2008 municipal polls.

Applauding what she said was “an exceptional vintage for the FN,” Marine Le Pen — head of the anti-immigration, anti-EU party — said the polls marked the “end of the bipolarization of the political scene.”

Although the FN had been expected to do well, the first round results were far better than expected.

Far-right candidates came ahead in several key towns and cities that will put them in pole position in the second round on March 30.

In the former coal-mining town of Henin-Beaumont in northern France, Steeve Briois went a step further and achieved 50.3 percent, an absolute majority which made him the outright winner and mayor.

Under municipal election rules in France, any candidate who gets more than 50 percent is declared the winner and there is no need for a second round.

The FN hopes to claim the mayorship of 10 to 15 mid-sized town after the second round, and if it achieves that, it will have beaten its previous record in 1997 when it had four mayors.

'Voters expressed their concerns'

The Socialists immediately responded to the surge of the FN by acknowledging that some voters had registered their discontent with current government policies.

“Some voters expressed their concerns, and even their doubts, by abstaining or through their vote,” Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said.

Turnout was dismally low at around 38 percent — a record for French municipal elections.

French Left Joins Forces to Stem Far Right Surge

The Socialist Party on Monday announced it would join forces with the Greens and the Communist Party in a bid to block advances by the far-right FN in nationwide local elections.

The move will see the three parties field combined electoral lists in the second round of the elections next Sunday, at which the FN is poised to win control of up to 15 mid-sized towns following a better-than-expected showing in the first found on Sunday.

The Socialist Party also announced that it would tactically withdraw from a three-way contest in the southern town of St Gilles, leaving voters with a straight choice between the FN candidate and the mainstream center right UMP.

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Socialist candidate for the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, center, waves as she arrives to deliver a speech after first results of the municipal elections are known, in Paris, Sunday, March 23.

(AP)

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