With far right rising, France holds urgent meeting

Associated Press
Far right party National Front leader Marine Le Pen poses for photographers before addressing reporters at the party's headquarters in Nanterre, west of Paris, Sunday May 25, 2014, following the victory of her party in the European Elections.(AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

PARIS (AP) — President Francois Hollande convened an emergency meeting Monday with top government ministers after the far right National Front emerged as France's most popular party in voting for the European Parliament.

Hollande summoned the special meeting a day after his Socialist Party finished a distant third in nationwide balloting behind the anti-immigration party. Speaking before the meeting, Prime Minister Manuel Valls called it an "earthquake." Neither he nor the others in the meeting spoke on their way out.

"Our country has for a long time been in an identity crisis, a crisis about France's place in Europe, Europe's place in our country," Valls told RTL radio Monday morning. He said he doesn't plan to resign, and brushed off questions about whether France's parliament would be dissolved.

He did not announce major policy changes, but said the election result shows the need to push through with tax and spending cuts that he contends will boost the economy and ease the pain for voters who rejected the governing party out of frustration with unemployment and economic difficulty.

The National Front led sweeping gains for far right and Euroskeptic parties in the European Parliament elections. Many voters cast ballots for domestic reasons, to express disappointment in mainstream national parties.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen has softened the party's image in recent years, winning over disillusioned voters from right and left with a populist, anti-status quo message that blames European bureaucracy and immigration for unemployment, high prices and France's declining global influence.

But beneath Le Pen's broad smile and persuasive rhetoric, her party has hard edges. Her father, European Parliament member Jean-Marie Le Pen, reportedly suggested this month that an outbreak of the Ebola virus could help keep France from being "submerged" in immigration. The party's founder, he has been repeatedly convicted for racism and anti-Semitism.

The party increasingly targets France's large Muslim minority. One National Front mayor elected in March sought to block the construction of a new mosque. Another new National Front mayor wants to bar Middle Eastern sandwich shops.

At the European level, the party wants to withdraw France from the euro currency and eventually dismantle the EU from within.

The European Parliament's Web site said Monday that the anti-immigration National Front captured 25.4 percent of the vote Sunday, giving it 22 of France's 74 allotted seats in the body. The conservative party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy received 21 percent, and the Socialists trailed at 14.5 percent.