MARINE Le Pen secured the highest score for the far-Right in French presidential election history on Sunday, in a third-place finish that will present a major challenge to the two mainstream candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, left in the race.
According to official forecasts, the 43-year-old daughter of the founder of the National Front (NF) secured between 18.2 and 20 per cent of the vote, performing even better than Jean Marie Le Pen’s shock result in 2002, when he won 17 per cent.
At her press conference on Sunday night she burst into a rendition of La Marseillaise in front of delirious supporters waving the national flag.
“Whatever happens over the next two weeks, the battle for France has only just begun,” she said.
“We have exploded the monopoly of the two [main] parties of banks, finance, of multinationals, of resignation and abandonment, and carried higher than ever before the hopes of national ideas.
“Faced with an incumbent president at the head of a considerably weakened party, we are the only opposition to the ultra-liberal, lax and libertarian Left.”
Although it failed to take her into the second round, Miss Le Pen’s success will boost her influence on the French political scene, and is likely to hand her party seats in parliament later in the year. It could affect relations with minorities in France and in other European countries after a campaign based on rhetoric against immigrants, Islam and the European Union.
The winner of yesterday’s first round was the Socialist candidate François Hollande, with 28-29 per cent, who will contest the run-off against President Nicolas Sarkozy, who, with 25-27 per cent, became the first incumbent president to lose at the first hurdle.
A victory in the May 6 run-off would make Mr Hollande, 57, France’s first Socialist leader to be elected since François Mitterrand in 1988. Last night he pledged to unite the French after Mr Sarkozy’s divisive first term and declared: “I’m best placed to become next president.” He blamed Mr Sarkozy for the rise of the far-Right, saying his “discourse over the last few months has played into the hands of the far-Right”.
Confounding predictions of high abstention records, around 80 per cent of France’s 44.5?million-strong electorate turned out to vote for the 10 candidates.
The preliminary results showed that Mr Sarkozy, as the chief representative of the status quo, was the main victim of the disaffection that boosted Miss Le Pen’s showing. Polls consistently have suggested Mr Hollande will win the final clash by at least 10 percentage points.
Despite enacting significant reforms in his five-year mandate, Mr Sarkozy has struggled to fight unemployment – now at a record 10?million. He is perceived as having been too generous to France’s wealthiest individuals, in a nation that harbours deep suspicion about the rich.
Above all, many voters have not forgiven the man for his brash and showy style. A recent poll made him the most unpopular president of France’s fifth republic, created in 1958.
He had pinned his first round strategy on gunning for the NF vote by pledging to crack down on insecurity, halve immigration and better protect French borders – even threatening to suspend France’s membership of the open-border Schengen treaty unless other countries tightened theirs.
More than half of NF voters must now vote for Mr Sarkozy if he is to stand a chance of beating Mr Hollande.
“Given these results, Sarkozy is finished,” said Gerard Grunberg, a political analyst. “His fate is in the hands of Marine Le Pen and she will do nothing to help him, on the contrary.”
Despite finishing second, Mr Sarkozy last night said the race was closer than previously suggested and invited those who “love their country to join me”.
He immediately addressed key electoral issues raised by Miss Le Pen, seeking to capitalise on their vote. “This anxiety, this suffering, I know them, I understand them,” he said. “They concern our borders, outsourcing, control of immigration, work, security, for them and their families. I know that in this fast moving world, the concern of our patriots to preserve their way of life is the key issue in this election.”
The prospect of victory for Mr Hollande has meanwhile sent jitters round the City of London, amid concerns that he will relax efforts to cut France’s debt and deficit and shave its bloated state sector.
However, those fears were partially assuaged last night as the Communist-backed Left Front candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, fared worse than expected, winning 10.5-13 per cent of the vote.
François Bayrou, the Centrist candidate and “third man” of the 2007 campaign, failed to break the expected 10 per cent mark. His electorate is still crucial for Mr Sarkozy, however.
“This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That’s why many people are watching us,” said Mr Hollande after voting in Tulle, a town in central France in a department where he is MP.