France's ruling Socialist Party (PS) suffered a glaring setback in the first round of departmental elections, which saw a conservative coalition centered around former President Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) take the lead with 29.9 percent of the vote.
France's far-right National Front (FN) party came in second with 25.1 percent of the vote, despite earlier predictions that Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration party would come out on top with 31 percent. The elections nevertheless mark important gains for the FN, whose share of the vote has increased 10 points since 2011.
The PS was left trailing in third place with 21.5 percent of the vote, underscoring Socialist President François Hollande's dismal record on unemployment, which reached a record high toward the end of 2014.
Voter participation was up this year compared to similar elections in 2011, and the abstention rate was estimated at 49 percent, much lower than the 57.5 abstention rate recorded during the May 2014 European elections.
The departmental elections — previously known as "cantonal" elections — have been reformed since 2011, with the re-mapping of voting districts and the introduction of strict gender parity among candidates. Voters elected councilors to oversee local services within France's 101 departments, including those related to transport, education, and tourism.
The FN no longer "France's first party"
Despite clinching its highest ever score in a local election, the FN can no longer claim the title of "France's first party" — a phrase frequently used by its leaders since the FN's sweeping victory in the May 2014 European elections.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has waged a fiercecampaignagainst Marine Le Pen's party — calling the FN "an immense and obvious danger" last March — opened his address on Sunday with a statement of relief: "The National Front is not the first political group in France."
Le Pen, meanwhile, made the most of her party's second place finish, declaring the FN "the only winner of this first round."
"Tonight's results are the best possible answer to the unanimous and scandalous attacks" against her party, Le Pen said, taking a swipe at her detractors.
Unlike her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had focused on the presidency, Marine Le Pen has sought to establish strong local roots and expand the party's foothold in local government. The FN today has the widest presence of all parties in the election, with candidates in 93 percent of voting districts.
The left loses in one out of every four districts
As predicted by the polls, the governing PS came in third on Sunday, several points behind Sarkozy's UMP and its centrist allies at the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) and Democratic Movement (MoDem) parties.
Some socialist officials tried to put a positive spin on Sunday's results, including Prime Minister Valls, who described the Socialist score as "honorable."
French pollster François Miquet-Marty also downplayed the socialist defeat, noting in an interview with the French daily Libération that the 21.5 percent finish was only slightly lower that the 25 percent the PS won in the 2011 cantonal elections. Miquet-Marty's assessment was that the PS was "no longer in continuing decline."
Others in the party were not so quick to gloss over the defeat, with many blaming the poor results on the lack of unity among the French left. Government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll tweeted Sunday that Socialist candidates were paying for the left's disunity.
Voters will go back to the polls on Sunday for the second round of voting, and many candidates are expected to encourage temporary alliances in order to limit the FN. But presidential hopeful Sarkozy has once again played the "neither/nor" card, saying he would not encourage UMP voters to vote for the socialists in areas with a PS/FN face-off.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho
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