FRANCE’S Front National was last night poised to take more than 200 seats at this year’s local elections – more than a hundred times the two seats the party won in 2011.

The local council elections will act as a testing board for the far right party and serve as an opportunity for it to cement its place as a major force in French politics.

There is a worrying trend emerging in French politics, in a similar vein to what happened at Westminster when Ukip began to make gains. But while Ukip seem to be on a self-destructive mission with scandal and sackings rife, Front National are establishing themselves as a serious force. What this means for French politics is a sudden shift further to the right from parties attempting to match Front National’s rhetoric, similar to the sudden increase in immigration promises from both the Conservatives and Labour when Ukip were at their peak.

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Right-wing party UMP, headed by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, has started making openly anti-Islam comments and policy announcements with a view of attracting far-right voters. Some of Sarkozy’s recent attempts to woo voters have included policies on not offering pork-free menus to children in schools, and banning women from wearing Muslim headscarves on university campuses.

Front National leader Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the party’s founder, has already claimed the results as a victory, and socialist party leaders will struggle to see this result in any other light.

EARLY YEARS

FRONT National was formed in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the party until his daughter took the reins in 2011. Over the first 10 years the party managed to establish itself as the face of far-right nationalism in France, but they did not make any real impact in elections.

In 1984 the party won its first representatives, taking 11 per cent of the vote and 10 seats at the European Parliament elections. The normalisation of the party continued and more people joined, including defects from other right-wing parties.

JEAN-MARIE LE PEN

LE PEN did not, however, compromise his strong beliefs and ideas. His anti-immigration, gay marriage and abortion views prevented the party breaking fully into the mainstream. He was convicted of “inciting racial hatred” in the early 2000s after comments made in a French magazine.

Le Pen said that there will be “the day in France when we have 25 million Muslims, not five million, it is they who will command”. He added: “The French will lower their heads and walk the sidewalk with their eyes down. When they don’t, they’ll be asked, ‘What are you doing looking at me like that – are you looking for a fight? All you can do is run away or you’ll get it.’”

He has also been fined heavily for comments about the Holocaust, appearing to deny its severity and the legitimacy. He said: I’m not saying the gas chambers didn’t exist ... But I believe it’s just a detail in the history of World War II.” Le Pen, who has shared a stage with former BNP leader Nick Griffin, was described by a Jewish charity boss as “a xenophobe first and foremost”.

THE NEW FRONT

SINCE Marine Le Pen has come to power there has been a significant attempt to de-demonise the party. With a female leader and an openly gay deputy, the new face of the Front National does not conform to the stereotypical leadership of old. The new party leadership has led to the focus being shifted on to economic issues such as the euro while not straying too far from its far-right roots. Some political commentators have said this approach is simply masking their deeply held bias with an acceptable alternative to the mainstream politicians which hold a monopoly in the parliament.

Political scientist Thomas Guenole said that although there is a new faction of the party, there is still an equal section of “xenophobes, racists, anti-Semites and misogynists”.

He said: “It’s not a neo-Nazi party, but it is a nationalist, sovereignist, protectionist and anti-system party that would reclaim all authority and power for the central French state, and defend the interests and citizens it designates as truly French.”

Despite the controversy that follows the party, it has made significant inroads into the political mainstream in recent years. In the last European Parliament elections Front National surprised all the major parties by taking just under 25 per cent of the vote, winning 24 of France’s 74 seats and becoming France’s largest party in Europe. In these terms their recent rise has been almost identical to that of Ukip.

A low turnout at these elections, combined with less focus than a General Election, could be said to be contributing factors to their success.

These general council elections will be a big result for Front National and a continuation of the momentum which is building.

If they can now command a vote of more than 20 per cent in assembly and senate elections, Front National will become a major player in European politics, for better or for worse.