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France's municipal voting to test government grip

Sunday - 3/23/2014, 6:10pm  ET

French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen, right, and Secretary General of the National Front Steve Briois campaign for the municipal elections in Henin-Beaumont northern France, Friday, March 21, 2014. Marine Le Pen sees political gold in the abandoned coal mines of northern France that once pumped life, jobs and an identity into places like Henin-Beaumont, a bleak town that the far-right leader says is the avant-garde of her anti-immigration party's march to power. Municipal elections will take place on March 23 and 30 throughout France. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

ELAINE GANLEY
Associated Press

PARIS (AP) -- France's far-right National Front conquered a symbolic northern town in Sunday's first round of municipal elections and led in some other cities, drawing calls by the governing left and rival right to stop the anti-immigration party's advance.

The governing Socialist Party, which was victorious in 2008 voting, was losing ground to the conservative party, reflecting the deep unpopularity of President Francois Hollande who has failed to cure the struggling economy and unemployment rate hovering above 10 percent.

The National Front won an outright victory that made Steeve Briois mayor in Henin-Beaumont, party leader Marine Le Pen's blighted northern outpost -- once a thriving coal mining town of 26,000 people. Briois took 50.26 percent of the vote, eliminating the need for a final round on March 30.

Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for right and left to join to stop the National Front in towns it might win next week, saying that "all forces have the responsibility to ... stop" the far right's march. A so-called "republican front" of left and right came together in 2002 to defeat National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen when he vied for the presidency.

However, the leader of the conservative UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, said "there will be no alliance" with the left in the final round. The UMP was in position to maintain towns it held -- and won outright in Bordeaux where former Prime Minister Alain Juppe is mayor. It looked set to take other towns despite scandals surround its one-time party leader, former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Interior ministry said the participation rate was a record low of 64.09 percent. Low turnouts can favor the far right.

Polls showed the Socialist Party losing ground, but not the crown jewel, Paris, where two women, Socialist Anne Hidalgo and conservative Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, were vying.

The voting in 36,000 French villages, cities and towns for mayors and municipal counselors is also a test of the resiliency of France's governing Socialists. The election is the first since Hollande took office in 2012.

Marine Le Pen's National Front has aimed to use the municipal vote to build a grassroots base -- with 1,000 municipal officials in place, to position the party for national voting and European parliamentary elections in May.

The National Front fears that Islamic culture will dominate French civilization if Muslim immigration isn't halted, and opposes globalization and the European Union as infringements on French sovereignty. Le Pen has worked to clean up the National Front's racist image since taking over in 2011 from her father.

Speaking on TF1 television, Le Pen called the National Front a "great political force" supplanting the mainstream left and right and planting local roots "of a rather exceptional year."


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