ALTHOUGH the extremist right-wing National Front party won less than 1 percent of seats on France's city councils this weekend, it could yet win an even greater victory: setting the tone of national politics for the rest of the decade.
The National Front doubled its representation in city halls across France in municipal elections Sunday, though the gains were not as large as supporters predicted. National Front mayors will govern the cities of Toulon, Orange, and Marignane in southern France.
More than 1,000 new city-council seats will also give the party a grass-roots base for its campaign of "France for the French" and calls to expel immigrants. The National Front also urges abandoning France's commitment to the European Union.
The most high-profile victory for the ideas behind the National Front, if not for the party itself, was in Nice. Former National Front member Jacques Peyrat ran as an independent and won the mayoral seat of France's fifth- largest city.
"The issue that comes out of these elections is who represents an alternative in the current French political system," says Jean-Luc Parodi, secretary-general of the Paris-based French Political Science Association. "Now, it's the National Front."
The Front's unprecedented gains in the first round of voting sparked calls by mainstream parties to block high-profile gains of city halls by the extremist party. In some cases, Socialists and conservatives formed alliances to earn enough votes to defeat the Front's candidates.
"The National Front finds itself in a key position in many cities and could enter massively in municipal councils, the base of any democracy," French political scientist Pascal Perrineau warned in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur magazine, whose alarm-red cover before Sunday's vote framed the question: "For Sunday and Beyond: How to Combat the National Front."
"It's in Nice where the threat of a National Front victory is the most stark," he adds. "Nice is the fifth-largest city in France, particularly open to foreigners. If an ex-FN [National Front], who is still a man of the extreme right, becomes the mayor, what image of France will we be giving the world?"
The failure of the National Front leadership to denounce violence against immigrants, including that associated with its own members, contributes to the party's image as racist.
In Paris, National Front campaign leaflets called for an end to all city programs for immigrants, including health benefits and funding for antiracist associations. They also urged conversion of housing constructed for immigrant workers to shelters for homeless French citizens and called for a family allowance for French parents and construction of new housing for large French families.
"I can't understand why they would put this leaflet under my door," says one young Algerian resident. "Didn't they read the name?"
Even with only two or three representatives on a city council, National Front leaders claim they are now in a position to influence the direction of French politics.
"We expect to be a force in the Nord," says Robert Moreau, the leading National Front official in this old industrial region on the Belgian border.
Here, National Front candidates confirmed gains the party made in presidential elections last month among workers hit hard by unemployment.
"With one representative on a city council, you can't do much. With two or three or more, we can make demands on the city. If they are refused, we can run on that refusal in the next election," Mr. Moreau adds.
After this year's back-to-back presidential and municipal elections, France heads into a three-year election-free period. This comes none too soon for the nation's traditional parties of government, who have seen their share of the national and local vote drop from 90 percent in the 1970s to less than 60 percent today.
But in that interlude, the issue of how to manage a protest vote that increases with every election remains the central question in French politics.
Perhaps equally significant for their futures as governing parties: the need to clean up corruption. In a number of key cities, traditional parties were ousted because of official corruption. The conservative Rally for the Republic party of President Jacques Chirac lost Lyon and Grenoble, as well as its unanimous hold on Paris; its conservative coalition partner, the Union for French Democracy, lost Toulon and Nimes; the Socialists lost Marseilles.
"This [reaction to corruption] represents something profoundly new in French political life," says political analyst Olivier Duhamel.