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Sweep by the right in France elections sets stage for presidency

France woke up to a new political landscape Monday. The victory of the right in local elections and rejection of the ruling Socialists set the stage for the presidential race in 2017. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

For former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the results of Sunday's departmental vote affirm his stunning comeback, just three years after it seemed he had left politics for good. Perhaps even more significant, some observers say, is the emergence of the far-right National Front Party as a political force in a country that has long been dominated by just two parties.

"We are coming from a bi-partisan system and going to a three-party system with the National Front," says analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations, in Paris. "The actual score is not so important. What's important is the National Front can now be considered part of the political landscape."

Near final results found Sarkozy's center-right UMP party and its allies set to win at least 66 departments, or councils in the second round of voting. That means the conservatives will govern two out of every three departments across the country. While the National Front did not win a single department, it saw dozens of candidates elected, and attracted one in four votes in the first round of polling.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy's return to politics is looking like a success story

The results clearly deal a major blow to the Socialists, who lost half of their departments. Now the left control just 34. Adding to the sting, several key regions - including Hollande's Correze department and the Essonne department near Paris, the traditional fief of Prime Minister Manuel Valls - fell to the right.

"The Slap," wrote the daily "Aujourd'hui En France" on its front page Monday, displaying a photo of a grim looking Valls. France's conservative Le Figaro newspaper titled its headline, "The UMP in force, the Socialist Party in pieces."

Acknowledging what he called a "setback," Valls vowed to push on with the government's program to revive the struggling economy, and said new measures to be announced would emphasize "jobs, jobs, jobs."

'End to archaic socialism'

For analyst Etienne Schweisguth of the Center for European Studies, the results reflect a historic pattern of French voting, "to sanction the party in power," and vote for the opposition.

More worrying for the left, he said, is the future. "Personally, I think the situation of Mr. Hollande seems desperate," Schweisguth said. "I don't see how he'll be able to win the election in 2017. But he seems to think he can."

Francois Hollande approaches voters after having cast his ballot

Analysts don't see a future for Hollande at France's helm

Hollande's tactic, he added, was to eliminate all rivals to the left - a strategy he said that was doomed for failure.

The big winner in Sunday's vote is Hollande's chief rival, former President Sarkozy, who appears to have solidified his leadership of the UMP. In a victory speech at the party's Paris headquarters, he blasted the leftist government "that incarnates defeat at all levels."

"It's the lying, the impotency that were sanctioned," Sarkozy said in a hard-hitting speech that promised to "end the most archaic Socialism in Europe," when the right returns to power.

While other conservative candidates are mulling a presidential bid - notably former prime ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon - Sarkozy "appears to be the most qualified to unite the right and lead it to victory in the elections," analyst Schweisguth said.

"In my view, the only thing that could prevent him from being elected in 2017 is a judicial obstacle," Schweisguth added, referring to a tangle of scandals that continues to dog Sarkozy.

'National Front finds legitimacy'

The local elections also offer a boost to far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is eyeing a presidential run. "We're at the threshold of change," a euphoric Le Pen told "Le Monde" newspaper after Sunday's results. "What is happening is the biggest reconfiguration of political life in 40 years. All the cards have been reshuffled."

Schweisguth partly credits the party's careful campaign to make itself palatable to mainstream voters - in particular by rejecting its anti-Semitic legacy - for its success. "Since her arrival [to power], Marine Le Pen has unlocked something in the French voter," he said, citing her success in boosting the party's scores to record highs.

Marine Le Pen stands at a lectern in front of the press

Le Pen is shepherding her party into greater acceptance

"Her other great political innovation was to use Europe and globalization as the source of all French economic problems," he added. "That has given a unity to her discourse; that all France's problems come from the outside."

If nothing else, the Front's strong showing in the local elections may force a change in mainstream politics, analyst Moreau Defarges said.

"We may see a reorganizing of the French political landscape," he said, "with a third way, a middle way, that draws the moderate right and the moderate left." Both, he predicts, will try to capture some of the Front's populist, anti-Europe messages and reach out to a voting base that feels rejected by traditional parties.

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