PARIS -- The far right National Front won a decisive victory in a local election in southeast France on Sunday, underlining how the party's tough talk on crime and illegal immigration is resonating with voters and dealing a blow to President François Hollande's governing Socialist Party.
According to the final results, the National Front candidate, Laurent Lopez, won 53.9 percent of the vote in Brignoles, a town near the Mediterranean port of Toulon, compared with 46.1 percent for Catherine Delzers, the candidate of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or U.M.P. The Socialists backed a Communist ally who failed to make it to the runoff. Even an eventual plea to leftist voters to support the U.M.P. failed to fend off a Front victory.
"This vote shows that the French have a wish for change, that we bring solutions for the questions the French are asking," Marine Le Pen, the National Front's leader, said on LCI television on Sunday.
Analysts said the vote, while in a relatively minor election, nevertheless represented a slap to Mr. Hollande and showed the potential for the National Front, rather than the U.M.P., to benefit from anger over the government's immigration and economic policies. Municipal elections in France are to be held in March, followed by European Parliament elections in May.
The Front's victory underscored the challenge Mr. Hollande's government faces from both the right and the left. There is disquiet on the left as Mr. Hollande faces the need to overhaul a large and expensive public sector while meeting the European Union's expectations of fiscal restraint. He is under pressure from his core voters, who want him to preserve the generous social benefits that the Socialist Party has long supported.
Writing in the center-right newspaper Le Figaro on Monday, Guillaume Tabard, a political commentator, said the Front's strong showing in the election was a sign that it was no longer just attracting protest voters but was becoming "normalized" as a mainstream party.
Recent polls show Mr. Hollande with the lowest approval rating of any French president in 20 years, amid stubborn unemployment hovering around 10 percent and a general feeling that his leadership lacks decisiveness. While Mr. Hollande won praise for his intervention in Mali to stop the advance of Islamist rebels, he was recently left isolated in his support for American military action in Syria when Britain and Germany opposed it. President Obama later reversed course and agreed to a Russian-brokered plan for Damascus to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles.
Meanwhile, Ms. Le Pen has been seeking to give the Front an image makeover by distancing the party from the persistent perception among some French that it is racist and anti-Semitic. This month, she vowed to take legal action against anyone who characterized the party as "extreme right."
But attempts to recast the party have faced resistance. An editorial in Le Monde this month argued that the Front's rejection of French republican ideals of equality, its stigmatization of Muslim immigrants and its rebuke of the European Union made it a reactionary party. "The National Front is, today as yesterday, a movement of the extreme right," it said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 14, 2013 2:01 PM