President François Hollande’s government will stick to planned economic reforms and spending cuts despite being punished in local elections where the anti-immigrant National Front (FN) made gains.
In what leader Marine Le Pen called a breakthrough for her protectionist, anti-EU party, the FN won power in the northern former coal-mining town Henin-Beaumont in a first-round vote on Sunday, and leads in a dozen towns before next week’s run-offs.
With turnout at a record low of just over 60 per cent after a string of political scandals that have hit mainstream French politicians, Mr Hollande’s Socialists and their allies won just 38 per cent of the national vote, behind 47 per cent for opposition conservatives including UMP, initial tallies showed.
“On reforms, we have to keep calm and show courage,” finance minister Pierre Moscovici told Europe 1 radio. “We are ready to take all the measures needed for France to remain a credible country on public finances.”
Paris will send to the European Union details of planned public spending measures on 15 April as scheduled, he added.
France’s deficit is seen at 3.6 per cent of output this year and Mr Hollande aims to get below the 3 per cent target in 2015.
French unemployment was 11.1 per cent in January.
Socialist Mr Hollande sought to cut public spending and taxes earlier this year – in line with previous centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The FN secured around 5 per cent of the vote – a proportionately high amount given that it fielded candidates in just 600 towns, meaning that only one voter in three nationally had the option of casting their ballot for the party.
The strong FN showing re-inforced expectations that it and other anti-EU parties will do well in May’s European Parliament elections.
Polls already show the FN on track to emerge as the largest French party in the EU assembly.
A triumphant Ms Le Pen said she was not interested in voter pacts with the mainstream right. “The National Front is taking root just as it wanted to do – and the crop is pretty exceptional,” she told TF1 television.
If it manages to secure three more towns, the National Front would beat its previous record in 1995, when it entered three town halls and a fourth, two years later.
Those experiences were, however, bitter for the party as its attempts to run municipal services showed its lack of competence in power.
“Marine Le Pen’s strategy is to increase its territorial spread whereas her father liked to go for one-off shocks,” Frederic Dabi of pollster Ifop said, referring to Jean-Marie Le Pen, who ended up second in the 2002 presidential election to Jacques Chirac.
Since taking over the party in 2011, Ms Le Pen has sought to rid the party of its reputation for racism and anti-Semitism – an effort that has not always reached down to its grass roots.
The FN manifesto calls for a “national preference” policy under which social housing and other benefits would go to French nationals first, immigration would be reduced and a referendum called on bringing back the death penalty.