Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party is in disarray after the extreme-right Front National (FN) made historic gains in the first round of local elections in France. The FN capitalised on the surge in popularity for its new leader, Marine Le Pen, by taking 15% of the vote. The party, which until now had no local councillors, will see around 400 candidates go through to the second-round vote on 27 March.
More than 30 FN candidates topped the poll in areas including parts of Nice, Marseille and the Cote d'Azur. Many will face a run-off against Socialist party figures, leaving the right-wing UMP stumped as to whom to tell its support base to vote for. In the past, the right and left have grouped together in an unofficial republican alliance to block the far right. But the official party line, led by the UMP leader, Jean-Francois Copé, is not to direct its supporters how to vote. Copé said the party refused any alliance with the FN, but it could not recommend a "republican front" because that meant voting for the Socialist party.
Critics said the UMP was vacillating, not wanting to offend the far-right electorate, which it would like to win over in the 2012 presidential elections. But some ministers broke ranks. Valérie Pécresse, the higher education minister, said she would rather vote for the left in the case of a run-off against the FN. The first-round election result was seen as a warning to Sarkozy, who recently recorded his lowest ever approval ratings of 29%. Around 2,000 local councillor seats are up for grabs. With abstention at more than 55% in the first round, on 20 March, the Socialist party won 26% of the vote and the UMP 19% – a bruising in the last electoral test before Sarkozy's battle for presidential re-election.
In a long interview with the Guardian, Le Pen said there was discontent and "a desire for revolution in France" similar to the revolts in the Arab world.