Candidate Sophie Montel won 32.6% of the vote in the working class constituency in Doubs near the Swiss border, which was formerly held by Socialist Pierre Moscovici, now EU commissioner for economic affairs.
The Socialists came second, going through to the second round with 28.85% and the UMP was knocked out of the race with 26.54%.
In round two, the Socialists might still lose what was once a safe seat but last night’s result is still being seen in Socialist circles as a sort of victory, so low were party expectations after 13 almost consecutive election defeats for the ruling party.
Their relative success is being attributed the so-called 11 January factor – a desire for the country to pull together in the spirit of the huge National Unity march held days after the terrorist attacks on 7, 8 and 9 January.
The result is in line with recent opinion polls which showed a huge rise in approval ratings for President Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, both praised for their response the terrorist attacks in Paris.
On careful examination, however, analysis of the vote reveals that the Socialists lost 12 points compared to their score in 2012, the last time the seat was contested. The Front National gained exactly the same number of points, suggesting that more and more low-income voters are switching from the Socialist party to the Front National.
The result is bad news for Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party.
It is a personal blow for Sarkozy, who was elected leader of the UMP in November, after two and a half years out of French politics following his defeat by François Hollande in the 2012 presidential elections.
The party was falling apart when he took over, submerged by allegations of corruption and bitter infighting.
So far he has succeeded in imposing his authority on the party and uniting the various political currents and competing personalities but he has clearly failed to convince voters that the best alternative to the current government is the UMP.
Now he is faced with an unpalatable decision, which could re open divisions within the party.
Should he advise UMP supporters to vote for the Socialists in round two, creating a so-called Front Républicain to stop the Front National winning the seat? Or should he favour the “ni-ni” policy, recommending that voters vote neither for the Socialist candidate, nor the Front National candidate? Or should he just leave them to make up their own minds?
The UMP is to make an official pronouncement after a meeting tomorrow.
The policy of voting Socialist to stop the FN is problematic.
FN leader Marine Le Pen has seized on the tactic, insisting it illustrates that the UMP and the Socialists are one and the same, a party she mockingly calls the UMPS (UMP+Parti Socialiste)
UMP heavyweight Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the party’s unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of Paris, favours trying to block the FN but says she will abide by whatever Sarkozy decides.
But UMP former Europe minister Bruno Le Maire says a blocking tactic would be a mistake, tantamount to telling Front National voters that they are not part of the French Republic and that “we will do everything to make sure that [their] vote has no impact”
If Sarkozy opts for the neither nor policy he will be accused of blurring the line between the mainstream republican right represented by the UMP and Marine Le Pen’s extremist party.
Sarkozy knows that at least some of his supporters will vote Front National rather than Socialist. Nevertheless he might decide not to give any advice to UMP voters.
For former UMP education minister Luc Chatel it is a “complicated choice”. “Voters will have the choice between the Front National and the party which is responsible for the rise of the Front National.”
From strength to strength
The vote confirms once again the Front National’s steady rise in France.
If Sophie Montel wins the second round the FN will have three seats in the National Assembly.
Marine Le Pen declared that last night’s result demonstrated that Nicolas Sarkozy’s much-trumpeted return to the French political scene was “a failure”, and hinting that whatever Sarkozy advised, she expected disappointed UMP voters to back her candidate in round 2.
The spirit of 11 January
Bernard Sananès of the CSA polling institute says the result indicates renewed enthusiasm from Socialist supporters who had lost faith in Hollande and his government but have been energised by the spirit of 11th January when 2.5 million people around the country turned out to defend French values.
But while those on the left relished the spirit of that day, many on the right are more concerned with the issues brought into focus by the terrorist attacks
“How could anyone be surprised following the killings perpetrated by Islamist radicals that the FN top the polls in a by election?” asks right-wing Le Figaro in its editorial on today.
And Henri Guaino, a loyal Sarkozyist MP declared today “after the 11th January, some might have thought that we were living in a new world. Well, its not the case, French society is in a worrying state, the anger of our fellow citizens has not diminished.”