Far right takes ten cities in French local elections

In the French capital, Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo won 54.5 percent of votes against Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet of the conservative opposition UMP party. Hidalgo, who has served for 13 years as deputy to outgoing Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, will become the first female mayor of the capital. Victories in Paris and Lyon came as consolation for the ruling Socialists, who suffered heavy defeats against the UMP in cities across the country, including Toulouse, Angers and Limoges. But the biggest story of the night was the strong showing by Marine Le Pen's far right National Front, which came out on top in ten cities.

Exit polls showed National Front (FN) candidate David Rachline winning in Fréjus, a sleepy Côte d’Azur town, while Robert Ménard, an FN-backed candidate (though he is not a party member himself) and founder of Reporters Without Borders, won in Béziers. Avignon, another city closely watched by FN partisans, ended up in the hands of the Socialists, with Cécile Helle getting 47.2 percent of the vote against far-right candidate Philippe Lottiaux, who won 34.7 percent, according to exit polls. Lottiaux came out on top in the first-round vote last Sunday, prompting the head of the city’s famed theatre festival to say the event would look for a new host city if the National Front ended up at city hall. Meanwhile, exit polls had UMP candidate Jean-Claude Gaudin headed for a fourth term as mayor of Marseille.

Low turnout
As of 5 p.m. (GMT+2), turnout was estimated at 52.36 percent (a historic low for French municipal elections), the interior ministry said. This was even lower than the 54.72 percent turnout reported after the first-round vote last Sunday. President François Hollande is tipped to react to his Socialist Party’s losses by ordering a cabinet reshuffle that could see the popular Interior Minister Manuel Valls installed as Prime Minister, replacing current premier Jean-Marc Ayrault. In a televised statement, Ayrault called the election a "moment of truth" for the ruling party. "This vote is a defeat for the government and for the majority," he said. "[The defeat is] collective, and I recognise my part in it."

Hollande told his ministers on Wednesday that they needed to "learn a lesson" from the Socialists' poor showing in the first round, in which the left took 38.2 percent of the vote, compared to 46.44 percent for the right. There have also been reports that Hollande is seeking to ramp up the pro-business credentials of his government by bringing veteran industrialist Louis Gallois or former World Trade Organisation director Pascal Lamy into the cabinet. (The French political system allows non-elected figures to be appointed to cabinet.) In the first round of polling last week, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front (FN) party took five percent of the vote - up from 0.9 percent in the first round of the last municipal polls in 2008 - despite only being able to field candidates in a minority of municipalities.

The FN has already claimed the mayor's seat in Henin-Beaumont in northern France, having secured more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. The party has controlled a handful of local authorities, including the major port of Toulon, in the past. But their administrations were frequently tainted by allegations of mismanagement and cronyism, which led to voters ousting them at the first opportunity. Le Pen, who has made strenuous efforts to forge a new, more respectable image for the party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, claims the FN has matured in terms of the quality of its candidates for office.

"The only glass ceiling we have not broken through is being able to show what we are capable of doing," she says in an interview with Saturday's edition of "Le Monde". "What we lack at the moment is a positive report card. That is important. With that we can move to a higher level."
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