National Front rattles French elite

Marine Le Pen, FN leader Image copyright AP
Image caption Marine Le Pen's FN remains distant from British UKIP Eurosceptics

The first round of the municipal elections may have been a high-point for France's anti-EU National Front (FN), but it probably won't be the high-point of 2014.

That's more likely to be at May's European elections.

The town hall elections have proved that Marine Le Pen's twin strategy of "de-demonisation" and grassroots implantation is working. The second round is this Sunday.

Normally, the municipal vote is the one the FN does worst in. Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder, was fixated with the presidential race.

He rather despised the rank-and-file, and little was done to train up local cadres.

That has changed. And the party has successfully rebranded itself. The look and language are more professional. The nasty element has been sidelined.

The result is that the party is well on the way to building up a nationwide structure, with influence beyond its traditional bases in the north and south-east.

And if it all came together for the town hall elections, how much more likely that the Europeans will prove an even greater success.

Anti-establishment force

The Europeans are elections in which people have always felt free to register a protest. On top of that, the EU is one of the FN's recurring themes.

Plus there is the fact that (unlike other French elections) the Europeans are conducted under proportional representation - which for once allows the FN to win a number of seats that reflects its national score.

Opinion polls suggest the FN and centre-right UMP will vie for top place in May.

More than likely, many people who normally vote Socialist will abstain (as they have done in the municipals) or even vote for the FN.

As many have pointed out, the FN is becoming the new party of the working class. Arguably it is taking the place of the old Communist Party, which back in the 60s was a genuine third party challenging mainstream left and right.

With 20-25% of the vote the FN could get 15 to 20 MEPs, and it would be a short step to creating a parliamentary group with allies from other countries.

But more to the point, if the party comes first in May - which it could well do - it would be a political earthquake.

The National Front: France's most popular party!

If it happens, Marine Le Pen has said she will call for France's National Assembly to be dissolved - and new elections to reflect the new reality.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Marseille: Party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen (right) rallies support for mayoral candidate Stephane Ravier

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