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Shocked but undeterred by far right victory, France's Socialists press on with reform agenda

Far right party National Front leader Marine Le Pen poses for photographers before addressing reporters at the party's headquarters in Nanterre, west of Paris, Sunday May 25, 2014, following the victory of her party in the European Elections.(AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

PARIS – France’s Socialist government won’t resign and will press forward with tax cuts and other reforms despite a record victory for the French far right in European parliament elections, the prime minister said Monday.

President Francois Hollande held an urgent meeting of government ministers Monday morning to forge a response to his party’s drubbing by the anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front party that has shaken France’s political landscape.

France’s next presidential and legislative elections are in 2017. But the showing gives new momentum to National Front leader Marine Le Pen — who has projected a kinder, gentler face of her party — as the top leaders of the two biggest mainstream parties look weak.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has far better poll numbers than his boss, explained the results as a sign that France has “for a long time been in an identity crisis, a crisis about France’s place in Europe, Europe’s place in our country.”

Stressing his support for the European project in an interview with RTL radio, Valls said Europe needs “another orientation” to combat the rise of populism — but didn’t elaborate on how. “I think Europe remains a magnificent project,” he said.

Valls stopped short of announcing major policy changes, but said the election result shows the need to push through with tax and spending cuts that he contends will boost the economy. The Socialists harvested their lowest score ever in a European Parliament election.

The fallout could be uncomfortable for a country that has been a pillar of the European Union and prides itself as a beacon of human rights. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of EU powerhouse Germany called the National Front’s success “a bad signal.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the rise of right-wing populists in the weekend’s European elections was “remarkable and regrettable,” and called for policies that could create jobs and improve competitiveness.

“That goes for France too,” she said in Berlin.

In recent years, Le Pen has softened her party’s image and won over disillusioned voters from right and left with a populist message that blames European bureaucracy and immigration for high prices and France’s declining global influence.

“The French suffer from austerity, unemployment and social difficulties. But our governments are deaf to the cry of the people,” she said Monday, calling the election result an “incredible disavowal” of “the entire, so-called traditional political class.”

Beneath Le Pen’s broad smile and persuasive rhetoric, her party has hard edges.

Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is a European Parliament member, reportedly suggested this month that an outbreak of the Ebola virus could help keep France from being “submerged” in immigration.

He is the party’s founder, and has been repeatedly convicted for racism or anti-Semitism. He caused a thunderclap in French politics when he made the runoff in the 2002 presidential race against then-President Jacques Chirac.

The party increasingly targets France’s large Muslim minority. One National Front mayor elected in March sought to block the construction of a new mosque. Another new National Front mayor wants to bar Middle Eastern sandwich shops.

At the European level, the party wants to withdraw France from the euro and eventually dismantle the EU from within.

The European Parliament’s website said Monday that the National Front captured 25.4 per cent of the vote, giving it 22 of France’s 74 allotted seats in the body. The conservative party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy won 21 per cent, and the Socialists trailed at 14.5 per cent.


Eds: David Rising in Berlin and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.