French government reels after far right 'warning shot' in vote

France's ruling Socialist Party expressed dismay Monday after two far right candidates came within a whisker of claiming 50 percent of the vote in a local by-election. In a result that reflected the extreme right's rising popularity, the representative of the Front National (FN) got 40.4 percent of votes in the first round of Sunday's by-election in the southeastern town of Brignoles while an independent extreme right candidate won 9.1 percent. The result came in an area where the far right has traditionally done well but it was nevertheless seen as symbolically significant. The FN's support has been rising nationwide with recent opinion polls suggesting it could take around 16 percent of votes in municipal elections scheduled for next March. Analysts say a struggling economy, record unemployment and mounting concern over crime have bolstered support for a party that has traditionally appealed to voters on an anti-immigration, anti-EU platform.

David Assouline, spokesman for the Socialist party, called for the left to unite against the rise of the FN, warning that the by-election result was a "warning shot" ahead of the municipal elections, the first real electoral test since the Socialists came to power last year. "It proves what we have been saying for months: when the FN stands strong and tall, the left must absolutely be united from the first round," he said on Europe 1 radio. The main right-wing opposition UMP party, which won 20.9 percent of votes in Sunday's by-election, will battle against the FN candidate in the second round on October 13. The Socialist party had no candidate in the by-election and had publicly supported the far-left PCF party, which was eliminated in the first round. Assouline said his party now called on Brignoles residents to vote for the UMP candidate in the second round rather than let the FN in.

The FN is headed up by Marine Le Pen, who has attempted to broaden the appeal of a party whose image has long been linked to the personality of her father Jean-Marie, target of a string of convictions for incitement to racial hatred and holocaust denial. Under her leadership, the FN has expelled overtly racist activists and selected a number of ethnic minority candidates for local elections, as well as increasing its focus on policy issues other than immigration and the EU.