The French government was in full soul-searching mode on Sunday after the conservative opposition trounced the governing Socialist Party (PS) in a municipal election run-off that also yielded gains for the far-right National Front.
Voters across the country used the election for town councils and mayors to vent their frustration with President Francois Hollande’s failure to turn around the battered French economy.
From Reims in the north-east to Toulouse in the south-west and the central city of Limoges, PS mayors were shown the door as voters in dozens of municipalities decamped to former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
Other cities that swung from left to right included Saint-Etienne, Pau and Angers. Paris, Lyon, Lille and Strasbourg bucked the trend by re-electing PS mayors, while voters in Marseille returned the UMP incumbent.
In Paris, Socialist Anne Hidalgo defeated the UMP’s Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, to become the capital’s first female mayor.
Elsewhere, the UMP was savouring its spoils, which come two months before European elections, in which the anti-immigration FN is tipped to place first or second.
Provisional results showed the UMP and other right-wing parties polling 45.91 per cent of the vote, compared with 40.57 per cent for left-wing parties, 6.84 per cent for the far right and 6.62 for independents.
“France’s top party is the UMP,” party leader Jean-Francois Cope declared.
The FN was also on the march, winning 14 or 15 municipalities according to the interior ministry, including the northern former coal mining town of Henin-Beaumont, which it won in the first round of voting on March 23.
Frejus and Beziers, two Mediterranean towns of more than 50,000 inhabitants that have been hard hit by the crisis, were among others to elect FN or FN-backed mayors.
FN leader Marine Le Pen, who has worked hard to rid the party of its extremist image, said the polls showed the party was now a viable alternative to the PS and UMP.
“Today the FN has shaken up the traditional UMP-PS duo,” she told supporters.
The party failed, however, to convert its first-round lead in some towns, such as the Forbach in the north-east, where FN vice president Florian Philippot was defeated by the Socialist incumbent, and Avignon, where the FN candidate also lost to the Socialist candidate.
Those wins provided little comfort for the Socialists, who were punished for the government’s failure to create jobs and growth, 22 months after Mr. Hollande took office.
Voter turnout plunged to a new record low on Sunday. Ipsos polling company estimated a turnout of 62 per cent, down from 63.6 per cent in the first round, which was already an historic low for a municipal election.
Apathy was particularly acute among left-wing voters, who have been disillusioned with Mr. Hollande’s shift from traditional leftist tax-and-spend policies to a more business-friendly approach.
Former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal, who is the mother of Mr. Hollande’s four children, expressed alarm at the results, calling them a “very severe warning”.
Mr. Hollande, who is expected to reshuffle his cabinet in the coming days, promised during the week to “draw a lesson” from the results but has also vowed to stick to his current course of trying to restore lost competitiveness.
One of those whose position is seen as vulnerable is Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who acknowledged Sunday a share in the government’s “collective” responsibility for the election result.
“It’s a clear message which must be fully heard,” Mr. Ayrault said.