Paris. The millions of French citizens who voted for Marine Le Pen’s National Front have turned the anti-immigrant, anti-European party into a kingmaker in the second round of presidential elections.
She surged in Sunday’s first round to a share of the vote never achieved by her father and former party leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in 2002 defeated a Socialist in the first round before losing to Jacques Chirac in the second.
His daughter did not match that feat on Sunday — the incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and his front-running Socialist rival Francois Hollande will square off on May 6 — but the National Front (FN) had its best showing ever.
It took almost 18 percent of the vote, according to official results that put Hollande at 29 percent and Sarkozy on 27 percent.
Le Pen’s total echoed advances by populist parties across Europe as the euro zone’s lingering debt crisis fuels anger over harsh austerity measures, joblessness and ailing economies.
“The battle of France has just begun,” the telegenic blonde declared on Sunday after vote estimates were released, adding that “we have exploded the monopoly of the two parties” — the Socialists and Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP.
Her breakthrough sparked concern across the continent.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it “alarming” and editorialists noted that almost one in three French voters had opted for candidates of the far right or far left. The Washington Post said the FN’s strong showing reflected “the extent of discontent at the increasingly visible presence of Muslim and other immigrants in France’s Christian-rooted society.”
Hollande said the vote for Le Pen, who wants to pull the country out of the euro and rails against globalization and the “Islamization” of France, reflected anger in the country and said he would listen to her supporters.
“Sarkozy is to blame for the far-right’s high level,” he said, referring to his rival’s bid to win over FN voters with tough stances on law and order and immigration.
Opinion polls show most far-right supporters prefer Sarkozy but up to a quarter, mainly working-class voters attracted by Le Pen’s protectionist trade policies, could switch to Hollande.
Sarkozy moved quickly to woo FN voters, saying they deserved an answer to their concerns.
“These anxieties, this suffering, I know them, I understand them,” he said on Sunday. “They are about respecting our borders, the determined fight against job relocation, controlling immigration, putting value on work, on security.”
The first opinion poll after the first round said Hollande would beat Sarkozy by 54 percent to 46 percent in the second round.
Analysts say it is extremely unlikely the 43-year-old Le Pen will endorse either candidate in the second round, but she has said she will express an opinion on May 1.
Le Pen, a seasoned politician before she took over the party leadership last year, has sought to transcend the bigoted image of the FN she inherited from her firebrand father. But critics say she represents the same old hard-right party in new clothes.