Sunday’s election results changed the political center of gravity in France. Although President François Hollande has earned widespread approval for his handling of the terrorist attacks here, and Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor, is still pursuing a comeback plan to propel him and his center-right party back into power, the most significant political figure in France — some would argue the most powerful — is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right. Ms. Le Pen led her far-right National Front to a first-place finish in the initial round of regional elections on Sunday, a huge step forward in her plan to transform a fringe movement into a credible party of government.
The result left both Mr. Hollande’s Socialists and Mr. Sarkozy’s Republicans groping on Monday for ways to thwart Ms. Le Pen’s ascendance and increasingly worried that she is emerging as the candidate to beat in the presidential elections in 18 months. It also highlighted the appeal of baldly nationalist messages on both sides of the Atlantic at a time when traditional parties are struggling to address the insecurities of voters facing economic dislocation and a sense of vulnerability to terrorism.
“More than ever the National Front has become the heart of French political life and the political party around which the others situate themselves,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst and public opinion specialist at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po, the institute of political studies in Paris.
The National Front not only came in first in the popular vote on Sunday with 28 percent of votes cast nationwide, it was leading races to govern six of France’s 13 regions, decisively in at least two.