French far-right soars in presidential vote

PARIS – The anti-immigrant far right emerged as a potentially major force in French politics, with a record showing by its candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round of presidential elections.

Le Pen, who rails against European unity and what she says is the Islamization of France, took third place with more than 18 percent of the vote.

Her backers could play a critical role in the final round of elections May 6, helping determine whether conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy sinks or survives in his battle with Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, who held a thin lead in the first-round vote.

Both candidates quickly tried to woo Le Pen’s backers, but she already had her sights on the parliament.

Le Pen wants to return the National Front party, founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, to the legislature, and is now looking to make a mark in June parliamentary elections.

“The first round isn’t the end, but the beginning,” she said in what amounted to a victory speech. “Whatever happens in 15 days, the battle of France has just begun.”

Marine Le Pen, 43, in her first presidential election, has tried to soften the image of the National Front, stigmatized as racist and anti-Semitic under the helm of her father, its long-time standard-bearer.

Le Pen’s first-round performance went beyond her projections – but not her hopes. She said in an interview with The Associated Press last week that a surprise could be in store. However, she also said she would consider the best showing by her father a decade ago – just under 16.8 percent – to be her standard for success.

To the shock of the nation and neighboring countries, the 2002 vote propelled Jean-Marie Le Pen into the final round and a showdown with then-President Jacques Chirac. The left and right joined in a rare alliance to defeat him.

Marine Le Pen maintains the party’s anti-immigrant bent but uses it to target Muslim immigration which she claims is becoming a scourge on France, akin to hordes of Muslims bent on replacing the French culture with that of Islam.

Billing herself as the “anti-system candidate,” she wants to take France out of the eurozone and combats what she says is the tyranny of Brussels.

“We will explode the monopoly” of Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement party and the Socialists, and of the world of finance, she said.

She has said from the start that Sarkozy is a has-been incapable of winning the election.

“We are the sole viable opposition to the liberal left,” she said

The actual weight of the National Front is unclear.

Some voters had said before the first-round balloting that they would cast ballots for Le Pen simply to sanction Sarkozy.