March of the National Front could trigger cultural exodus

The Avignon Festival, one of the world’s leading arts events, vowed yesterday to leave the southern city if it comes under the control of the far-Right National Front party in council elections on Sunday.

The threat from Olivier Py, director of France’s oldest surviving festival, echoed the consternation across the French establishment after the Front came close to seizing the ancient city and a dozen other towns in the first round of a vote that punished President Hollande’s Socialist administration.

“I cannot work with a National Front mayor’s office. That is for me something unimaginable,” said Mr Py, citing the anti-racist principles espoused by the festival. “I cannot see how the festival could survive and defend its ideals, which are those of openness and of welcoming others. I think we would leave. There is no other solution.”

The Front’s candidates finished narrowly ahead of the Socialists, leaving the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement in third place, which had run the city for 19 years.

The anti-immigrant Front scored big advances in a string of Mediterranean sunbelt towns, alarming the UMP — the party of former President Sarkozy — as much as Mr Hollande’s Socialists.

The cities of Béziers, Fréjus and Perpignan are deemed ripe for seizure by the Front, which also won outright in the northern former mining town of Hénin-Beaumont. The party has not scored such a strong show in council elections since 1995.

“The National Front is taking root just as it wanted to do — and the crop is pretty exceptional,” Marine Le Pen, the Front leader, said yesterday as Libération, the left-wing daily, covered its front page with the words “Fear comes to Town”.

With a close second-round contest between the Socialists and the Front now guaranteed in Avignon, the city is a test for the Ms Le Pen’s claim to have taken the former pariah party into the respectable mainstream.

While Mr Hollande stayed silent, Jean-Marc Ayrault, his Prime Minister, urged the UMP to stick to an understanding under which the established parties teamed up across France, voting tactically for one another to block the rise of the far Right.

“Where the National Front is in a situation where it could win the second round, all democratic and republican forces have the responsibility to create the conditions to stop it from doing so,” said the Prime Minister.

However, Jean-François Copé, the UMP leader, said that he would only urge his voters to back the Socialists if they detached themselves from their far-left allies.

Mr Hollande’s team anticipated an electoral slap in the first test since his election in 2012, but they were taken aback by the ferocity of the rejection.

“We were expecting a bad election. This is a thrashing,” said a presidential aide. The Government, which is deemed by its electorate to have betrayed its left-wing promises to spark growth without austerity, said that it would not shift course.