PARIS (AP) — An anti-immigration movement founded by a man convicted of anti-Semitism now leads polls in France. The mainstream conservative party risks collapse amid a financing scandal. The Socialist president is the most unpopular leader in modern French history.
France, a pillar of Europe's unity and economy, is finding itself in serious political disarray and at a loss for easy solutions.
The resounding weekend victory of the far-right National Front in European elections shook the establishment and dealt a new blow to President Francois Hollande's floundering Socialists. Now, the conservative party is imploding over a campaign financing scandal linked to former President Nicolas Sarkozy's failed 2012 bid to renew his mandate.
The chief of the conservative UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, agreed Tuesday to resign on June 15. A collegial leadership made up of three former prime ministers will then step in to hold up the shaky party until an October congress when a new chief is elected.
The turmoil can only profit the far-right National Front and complicate a potential comeback bid for Sarkozy, who has said not a word. But the leader of the far-right National Front is gloating.
"The Socialist Party is wiped out," and the conservatives "are in a freefall," said Marine Le Pen at a news conference Tuesday. The National Front election campaign "revealed the true face of French political life," she added.
France had been ailing even before the Sunday elections to choose the French contingent in the European Parliament. Economic growth is feeble, unemployment high and Hollande unable to deliver an economic cure or even inject a boost to the national morale.
They were perfect ingredients for a far-right rise, and Le Pen knew where and how to strike.
The smiling, hard-driving leader aimed at the faceless European Union with its rules and regulations, and the euro currency that, she says, benefit only Germany and make a mockery of France.
The National Front is anti-system: Anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-euro and anti-globalization. It wants nothing more than to save French civilization from what it calls the risk of domination by Muslim immigrants, and extract France from the "steel jaws" of the EU.
It is a message that taps into a vein of deep disillusionment and has garnered a broad following that includes fed-up leftists as well as a traditionalist far-right core. Le Pen has revamped the party image, softening it for broader appeal and distancing herself from old attitudes embodied by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, that included anti-Semitism. Instead, she unrelentingly targets Muslims.
The National Front's European electoral win — with a quarter of the votes — followed a success in March municipal elections when the party won control of 11 towns.
"The French suffer from austerity, unemployment and social difficulties. But our governments are deaf to the cry of the people," Le Pen said Monday.
Hollande is gambling that boosting the economy is the only thing he can do to claw support away from the political extremes. But his riposte to the far right was off-key. After the European voting results were clear, he pledged to keep doing what he's doing and push through tens of billions of euros in tax and spending cuts that he hopes will get companies hiring again and shrink France's debts.
Le Pen wants to profit fully from her party's new winning image with a new parliamentary vote in France, where the National Front has but two seats in a 577-seat legislature.
"In the immediate, we demand the dissolution of the National Assembly as an act of political reality," she said at Tuesday's news conference. "We must go back to the people."
Turmoil within the mainstream conservative UMP party could provide yet another boost to the far right. But a leading National Front official said the political void is frustrating.
"What is happening now is distressing .... There is no debate possible because there is no adversary facing us," said Florian Philippot, a party vice president and newly-elected European deputy. "But having said that, our voice is audible."
The shake-up at Sarkozy's UMP party was prompted by French media reports claiming that a PR firm run by friends of Cope pocketed millions of euros for fictitious or overbilled campaign events during France's 2012 presidential race.
A lawyer for the company, Patrick Maisonneuve, on Monday denied that the company, named Bygmalion, actually pocketed the money. Instead, he said the company helped the UMP cover up more than 10 million euros in campaign expenses.
France has a 22 million-euro ($30 million) spending limit on presidential campaigns. Bygmalion was started by friends of Cope, who denies he was aware of any wrongdoing.
"There was no system of alert and I discovered all this just a dozen days ago," when the daily Liberation published revelations, Cope said on TF1 TV station Tuesday night, hours after losing his job.
Even he bemoaned the state of affairs in France.
"I've never seen my country in such a state of doubt and crisis," he said.
Le Pen has her sights set on 2017 presidential elections. She placed third in the 2012 vote, and claimed Tuesday the campaign finance scandal "puts in question the regularity and therefore the legitimacy of the first round of the presidential election."
She said, however, she would take no legal action.
Le Pen is eyeing another option — an early presidential vote. That should take place "if the president opens his eyes to the new political reality of France," she said.
Elaine Ganley is at http://twitter.com/elaine_ganley
Angela Charlton is at http://twitter.com/acharlton