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Published: Monday March 24, 2014 MYT 7:20:02 PM
Updated: Monday March 24, 2014 MYT 7:20:03 PM

Hollande to pursue reforms despite French local vote thump

PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande's government will stick to planned economic reforms and spending cuts despite being punished in local elections where the anti-immigrant National Front (FN) made gains, the French finance minister said on Monday.

In what leader Marine Le Pen called a breakthrough for her protectionist anti-EU party, the FN won power in the northern former coal-mining town Henin-Beaumont in a first-round vote on Sunday, and leads in a dozen towns before next week's run-offs.

With turnout at a record low of just over 60 percent after a string of political scandals that have hit mainstream French politicians of both left and right, Hollande's Socialists and their allies won just 38 percent of the national vote, behind 47 percent for opposition conservatives, initial tallies showed.

"On reforms, we have to keep calm and show courage," Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici told Europe 1 radio. "We are ready to take all the measures needed for France to remain a credible country on public finances."

Paris will send to the European Union details of planned public spending measures on April 15 as scheduled, he added. France's deficit is seen at 3.6 percent of output this year and Hollande aims to get below the 3 percent target in 2015.

The FN secured around five percent of the vote - a proportionately high amount given that it fielded candidates in just 600 towns, meaning that only one voter in three nationally had the option of casting their ballot for the party.

The strong FN showing reinforced expectations that it and other anti-EU parties will do well in May's European Parliament elections. Polls already show the FN on track to emerge as the largest French party in the EU assembly.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged voters across the spectrum to back whatever candidate was best placed to beat FN rivals in Sunday's second round. A triumphant Le Pen said she was not interested in voter pacts with the mainstream right even if that could win her a greater presence on town hall councils.

"The National Front is taking root just as it wanted to do - and the crop is pretty exceptional," she told TF1 television.

Results released during the night put the National Front ahead in the eastern town of Forbach, in France's former industrial heartland. In the south, the anti-EU party was in the lead in Avignon, Perpignan and Frejus, and in second place in Marseille behind the conservative incumbent.

"FEAR COMES TO TOWN"

If it manages to secure three more towns, the National Front would beat its previous record in 1995, when it entered three town halls and a fourth, two years later. Those experiences were, however, bitter for the party as its attempts to run municipal services showed its lack of competence in power.

"Marine Le Pen's strategy is to increase its territorial spread whereas her father liked to go for one-off shocks," Frederic Dabi of pollster Ifop told Reuters, referring to Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned France and its international allies by ending up second in the 2002 presidential election to Jacques Chirac.

Since taking over the party in 2011, Marine has sought to rid the party of its reputation for racism and anti-Semitism - an effort that has not always reached down to its grass roots.

The FN manifesto calls for a "national preference" policy under which social housing and other benefits would go to French nationals first, immigration would be reduced and a referendum called on bringing back the death penalty abolished in 1981.

"Fear comes to town," ran the front-page headline of left-leaning Liberation. "Rejection", said the conservative Le Figaro alongside a photo of Hollande.

There was some solace for the Socialists as their candidate for Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, looked to be on course to beat her conservative rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who nonetheless scored better than expected in the French capital.

The elections in thousands of constituencies across France were the first nationwide voter test for Hollande, who came to power in May 2012 and has seen his popularity slump to record lows for failing to rein in unemployment stuck above 10 percent and after a series of policy mishaps by his cabinet team.

If losses are confirmed in next week's voting, that could speed up a long-expected government reshuffle. If the UMP fails to convincingly capitalise on Socialist losses, its current leader Jean-Francois Cope could be replaced as party chairman.

Cope, a protégé of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, already has weak poll ratings. Sarkozy has hinted at a goal of standing again for president in 2017 despite being named in a number of legal investigations into improper party funding and other irregularities. He has denied any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Brian Love and Pauline Ades-Mevel; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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