French President Francois Hollande was due to take soundings on a possible Cabinet reshuffle yesterday after a drubbing for his Socialists in local elections handed the far-right National Front (FN) victory in a record number of towns.
Provisional results from Sunday’s voting showed the protectionist, anti-EU party of Marine Le Pen set to take control of 11 towns across the country, easily surpassing a past record in the 1990s when it ruled in four towns.
“Punishment,” read a front-page headline in the left-leaning Liberation newspaper.
At least another 140 towns swung from the left to mainstream opposition conservatives as voters punished Hollande for his failure to turn around the eurozone’s second-largest economy and tackle an unemployment rate stuck at more than 10 percent.
“The real question is: What does Francois Hollande want to do with our country?” Jean-Francois Cope, head of the opposition UMP party, told RTL radio. “What people want more than anything else is a sense of efficiency, of results.”
While Hollande himself — who surveys show is the least popular leader in France’s 56-year-old Fifth Republic — will remain in power, the question is whether he will replace French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose government has been accused of amateurism and of being paralyzed by policy splits.
“There is no getting away from it: This vote is a defeat for the government ... and I take my part of the blame,” Ayrault told national television late on Sunday.
The National Front’s 11 wins were largely in the south, which has a tradition of anti-immigrant feeling, but it also took power in northern and eastern districts suffering from France’s industrial decline.
The FN’s victories included the towns of Beziers, Le Pontet, Frejus, Beaucaire, Le Luc, Camaret-sur-Aigues and Cogolin in the south, and Villers-Cotteret and Hayange in the north. It had already made a breakthrough in last week’s first round by winning power in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont.
“This result is proof that we can win on a grand scale,” Le Pen told BFM TV.
Referring to European parliament elections due in late next month, she added: “I’m going to fight to help the French people regain a sense of freedom... I think we can end up in the lead.”
The FN now has a fresh chance to show it can be trusted with power after its attempts to run towns in the 1990s were widely judged to have exposed its failings, hurting its electoral fortunes for years afterwards.
Presidential aides said Hollande was due to see both Ayrault and centrist French Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls, who polls show is the favorite of most French to become prime minister, during a busy day of closed-door consultations at his Elysee Palace.
The president was likely to make a statement on television soon, French Minister of Agriculture Stephane Le Foll told RTL radio.
French Minister of Finance Pierre Moscovici, one of half a dozen ministers whose jobs are widely tipped to be on the line, said the government had to demonstrate a greater commitment to social justice and job creation even as it pushed tough reforms.
In some consolation for Hollande, Socialists retained control of Paris city hall, with their candidate Anne Hidalgo due to become the first female mayor there. However, they were set to cede power in cities such as Toulouse, Angers and Quimper.
Meanwhile, the conservative UMP saw off a challenge to its rule in the port of Marseille, although the FN won in the city’s seventh district.