PARIS (AP) — France’s Socialist president, reeling from a record electoral victory by the far right, pledged Monday to press ahead with tax and spending cuts and urged a more streamlined European Union in hopes of calming voter anger.
The anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front party shook France’s political landscape by coming out on top in France’s voting for European Parliament elections, beating the mainstream conservatives and the governing Socialists.
Hollande, in a televised speech to the nation Monday night, said the result was “painful” and an embarrassment for France, the “founding nation of the European Union, homeland of human rights, country of freedom.”
France’s next presidential and legislative elections won’t take place until 2017.
But the showing gives new momentum to National Front leader Marine Le Pen — who has projected a kinder, gentler face of her party — just as the Socialist government is flailing and former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party is wobbling amid a finance scandal.
Hollande held an urgent meeting of government ministers Monday morning and then pledged to push ahead with reforms of France’s stagnant, indebted economy.
In recent years, Le Pen has softened her party’s image and won over disillusioned voters from right and left with a populist message that blames European bureaucracy and immigration for high prices and France’s declining global influence.
“The French suffer from austerity, unemployment and social difficulties. But our governments are deaf to the cry of the people,” she said, calling the election result an “incredible disavowal” of “the entire, so-called traditional political class.”
Hollande responded to Le Pen’s big win by suggesting Monday night that EU should curb some of its powers, saying “Europe must be simple, clear, to be effective where it is needed and to pull back where it is not needed.”
He provided no details but said ahead of his attendance at an EU summit in Brussels Tuesday that he still firmly supports deep European cooperation on a host of issues and that France must not risk isolating itself within the bloc.
France “cannot pursue its destiny by turning in on itself, closing itself off, rejecting the other,” he said.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of EU powerhouse Germany called the National Front’s success “a bad signal.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the rise of right-wing populists in the weekend’s European elections was “remarkable and regrettable,” and called for policies that could create jobs and improve competitiveness.
“That goes for France too,” she said in Berlin.
Beneath Le Pen’s broad smile and persuasive rhetoric, her party has hard edges.
Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is a European Parliament member, reportedly suggested this month that an outbreak of the Ebola virus could help keep France from being “submerged” in immigration.
He is the party’s founder, and has been repeatedly convicted for racist or anti-Semitism remarks that are crimes in France. He also caused a commotion in French politics when he made the runoff in the 2002 presidential race against then-President Jacques Chirac.
The party increasingly targets France’s large Muslim minority. One National Front mayor elected in March sought to block the construction of a new mosque. Another new National Front mayor wants to bar Middle Eastern sandwich shops.
At the European level, the party wants to withdraw France from the euro and eventually dismantle the EU.
The European Parliament’s website said Monday that the National Front captured 25.4 percent of the vote, giving it 22 of France’s 74 allotted seats. The conservative party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy won 21 percent, and the Socialists came in third at 14.5 percent.
David Rising in Berlin and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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