Blow for Ruling Socialists as French Right Leads Local Elections

French voters looked to have given the ruling Socialists a drubbing in run-off local polls on Sunday, while boosting the prospects for former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the far-right ahead of 2017 presidential polls. 

Right-wing parties, spearheaded by Sarkozy's UMP, took between 64 and 70 councils out of a possible 98, according to projections, as voters punished the socialist government of President Francois Hollande for failing to revive the slumping economy. 

Left-wing parties took a beating, taking only between 27 and 37 councils, the projections by the Ipsos and CSA polling firms indicated.

"Never... has our political family won so many councils," Sarkozy told cheering supporters, adding that voters had "massively rejected the policies of Francois Hollande and his government."

The far-right National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen, which took a quarter of the vote in the first round last week, won a sizable number of seats, according to the projections, but it was not certain if it had taken control of any councils

Pollsters said it was set to win between zero and two councils.

It would be the first time the FN has won any "departments", which control issues such as school and welfare budgets. 

The party is often blocked from victory in second-round run-offs by tactical voting from mainstream voters, who gang up to keep the FN out of power. 

Le Pen hailed a "magnificent success" that showed it was "a powerful force" in many local areas. 

The projected results were a further boost for the FN after its victorious showing in last year's European elections.

But the big winner was Sarkozy, who had used an energetic campaign to rebuild his status as a serious contender after being criticized for being distant, preoccupied and even bored since returning to frontline politics in September. 

Sarkozy's decision to ally his right-wing UMP with centrists has been welcomed by voters, who punished his shift further to the right to rival the FN during the 2012 presidential campaign.

- Socialist 'setback' -

Meanwhile, the Socialists fear their poor showing in the local polls could spell doom in the regional and presidential polls to come. 

Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged that the leftist Socialists had suffered a "setback" in the elections and stressed that the FN's score was "far too high."

Valls vowed to "redouble" the government's efforts to pep up the French economy, the second biggest in the eurozone.

Hollande has seen his popularity ratings plummet back to record lows after a slight bump after the January jihadist attacks in Paris, when he was credited with bringing the country together.

There are now fears he might crash and burn at the presidential poll. 

"Everyone in the (Elysee) is scared he will be eliminated in the first round in 2017," a presidential adviser told AFP, adding that Hollande had no choice but to continue unpopular austerity reforms that have alienated the public and many in his own party.

Gilles Finchelstein, a political strategist close to the Socialists, painted an even darker picture in an article for L'Express magazine, saying "the left is in danger of dying, (and) risks becoming nothing more than a residual political force."

Around 40 million French were eligible to vote in the local elections, and around half were estimated to have turned out. 

Despite fears among mainstream parties that the momentum behind the FN could propel Le Pen into the presidential palace in 2017, analysts still say it is unlikely. 

"The FN is nowhere near to taking national power. Yes, she's had recent successes," said political scientist Nonna Mayer. 

"(But) it's mad to imagine Marine Le Pen in the Elysee."

Source: Agence France Presse

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