Exit polls from the first round of France’s local elections show that the far-right National Front (FN) party has made historic gains, highlighting popular discontent with President François Hollande and his left-wing allies.
According to pollster BVA, FN gained seven percent – a high national tally for the far-right group, as it fielded candidates in 596 out of some 36,000 municipalities across the nation. FN leader Marine Le Pen called the election “exceptional” for the party.
Opposition conservatives saw a major gain, with 48 percent of the Sunday vote, leaving Hollande’s Socialists and their leftist allies behind with 43 percent, BVA said.
“The National Front has arrived as a major independent force - a political force both at the national and local level," Le Pen told TF1 television. The daughter of former FN head Jean-Marie Le Pen scored 18 percent in the 2012 presidential election.
Most significantly, the anti-immigration and anti-EU party managed to take over the Socialist bastion of Henin-Beaumont in the north of France. Its candidate, Steeve Briois, took the majority of the vote with 50.26 percent, which makes him the outright winner and mayor of the former coal-mining center.
Exit polls project the FN is also ahead in the eastern town of Forbach. In the south, the party was in the lead in Avignon, Perpignan, Beziers, and Frejus, and was vying for second place in Marseille, behind the conservative incumbent, Reuters reports.
According to pollsters, about six towns could now see the FN rule following the second round.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault made a television appeal for "all democratic forces" to close ranks against FN candidates next week.
"Wherever the FN is in a position to win the second round, all who support democracy and the Republic have a duty to prevent them," Ayrault said, calling on voters to turn out in greater numbers than for the first round.
Hollande's popularity hit a record low recently, with his approval rating falling below 20 percent for the first time since his May 2012 election, TNS Sofres opinion poll for Le Figaro Magazine showed in February. The record level of disapproval reflected turmoil in his personal life, high levels of unemployment, and lack of economic growth.