March 24 - The French far-right National Front party made big gains in local elections, as voters punishing President Francois Hollande and his left-wing allies. But with the economy finally showing signs of improvement Joanna Partridge asks if Hollande still has a chance?
TV AND WEB RESTRICTIONS~**NONE*~ It was a painful election result for France's President Francois Hollande. Voters punished him and his Socialist government for failing to bring down unemployment. The anti-immigrant National Front surged to power in the first-round vote in one previously Socalist-run town, and it's leading in six others ahead of a run-off vote next week. SOUNDBITE: Jacques, Passer-by, saying (French): "It's not that surprising, because there's been a big increase in taxes , people just rejected the Socialist Party as a whole." SOUNDBITE: Hassan Saada, Passer-by, saying (French): "The emergence of the National Front is dangerous for the future. And the Socialist Party is paying for denying reality." Turnout levels at the local elections were at a record low, following a series of scandals which have hit mainstream politicians on the left and the right. The National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, called the results a breakthrough. Frederic Dabi is from polling institute IFOP. SOUNDBITE: Frederic Dabi, Deputy Director at French Polling Institute IFOP, saying (French): "Only one French person in three had the possibility of voting for the National Front, so their score of 5% for the whole of France is a window-dressing compared to their real potential." Too late to influence voters came rare good news from France's economy on Monday. Business activity grew in March at the fastest pace in over 2 1/2 years says Rob Dobson from Markit, which compiles the figures. SOUNDBITE: Rob Dobson, Chief Economist, Markit, saying (English): "New orders, output, both coming back into growth, we've seen backlogs of work, which is a good indicator of future employment trends then rising quite sharply, and that's raising hopes that maybe with output and new orders rising, employment could soon follow suit." France's recovery had been trailing behind the rest of the euro zone. But more jobs won't necessarily mean the government will do better in the upcoming European elections, says Sarah Hewin from Standard Chartered. SOUNDBITE: Sarah Hewin, EU Head of Research, Standard Chartered, saying (English): "Wake-up call I suppose to the government to address the sorts of problems that are facing France and have done for some time, in particular the very high level of unemployment, the lack of competitiveness particularly among smaller companies, those companies blaming their problems essentially on very high social charges." If the Socialist party's losses are confirmed in next week's second-round vote, it could speed up a long-expected government reshuffle. It's another matter entirely whether that could give embattled President Hollande a ratings bounce.