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France swings to the right, as Europe shifting amid economic and security concerns

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PARIS — France, long the land of the left, is making a right turn.

The top two parties in weekend local elections were the conservative UMP and the far right National Front. And even the governing Socialists are adopting traditionally right-wing policies: reducing labor protections, expelling immigrants and rounding up trouble-makers.

The election result is the latest sign of a long-running change in attitudes, as many Europeans shift amid economic uncertainty and security fears. That, along with disillusionment with mainstream leaders, is pushing voters in new directions, from Greece to Spain and Britain.

In France, surging support for the National Front has forced mainstream conservatives and leftists to consider ideas that once seemed authoritarian. And a deadly rampage in January by French Islamic extremists is swaying the conversation about security, immigration and integration.

"What seems most striking to me is the bar swinging to the right on the political chess board," said Frederic Dabi of France's Ifop polling agency.

That's in part because of shrinking support for Europe's open borders and shared currency, which far right groups decry. But Dabi said it's also because voters from all political backgrounds want to punish the party in charge.

In the voting Sunday for local councils in France, former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP and its allies won 29 percent of votes in first-round balloting. Next came Marine Le Pen's National Front, with 25 percent. President Francois Hollande's governing Socialists and their allies trailed with 21.5 percent, according to official results.

That means that in about a quarter of runoff races March 29, voters will have a choice between the right and the hard right.

It's a wake-up call for the French left, which boasts several political parties and whose defense of worker rights and the welfare state long set the overall national agenda. It's bleeding support amid Hollande's failure to create jobs and reinvigorate the economy.

Many even expected the National Front to come out on top in Sunday's vote, since its support has steadily surged over recent years under Le Pen. With her eye on a 2017 presidential bid, she wants to close France's borders and rails against the "Islamization" of Europe.

PHOTO: French far-right leader and National Front Party, Marine Le Pen speaks on the phone after a news conference at party headquarters, Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Nanterre, western France. For Le Pen, today's election for more than 2,000 local councils is an important step in building a grassroots base critical to her ultimate goal: the 2017 presidency. Local elections takes place today and the second round on March 29. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
French far-right leader and National Front Party, Marine Le Pen speaks on the phone after a news conference at party headquarters, Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Nanterre, western France. For Le Pen, today's election for more than 2,000 local councils is an important step in building a grassroots base critical to her ultimate goal: the 2017 presidency. Local elections takes place today and the second round on March 29. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

Sarkozy's conservatives dominated the Sunday elections instead — in part because they have increasingly been borrowing from the far right playbook to win votes.

Under Sarkozy's presidency, authorities expelled tens of thousands of immigrants annually. Hollande's Socialist administration has kept up the rhythm, expelling about the same number each year as under Sarkozy.

The French Parliament's vote in January to extend airstrikes against extremists in Iraq was telling: The Socialist-led National Assembly gave Prime Minister Manuel Valls a standing ovation when he declared "war" on terrorists, and approved the extension by 488-1.

After the January attacks, Hollande's administration deployed more than 100,000 security forces, and authorities rounded up dozens in a crackdown on hate speech. The government is now pushing to legalize broad surveillance of terrorism suspects, a move activists consider a major blow to France's famed "liberte."

And on the financial front, the economy minister stands accused of betraying his Socialist roots by loosening up labor rules and allowing more stores to open Sundays.

Moving to the right isn't helping the Socialists electorally, however.

France's latest elections showed a sharp rise in "anti-system" voters, said political scientist Thomas Guenole of Vox Politica.

"It's the intersection of two things: a deep economic crisis, and a system that cut France in two — the France of insiders and the France of outsiders," he said.

In Spain, radical leftists and centrists gained on mainstream parties in elections Sunday. In Britain, concerns about immigration and a loss of sovereignty to the European Union are pushing the political conversation to the right. Upcoming British elections could weigh on the entire continent's direction.


Al Clendenning in Madrid and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

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PHOTO: French far-right leader and National Front Party, Marine Le Pen poses prior to a news conference at party headquarters in, Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Nanterre, western Paris  France. For Le Pen, today's election for more than 2,000 local councils is an important step in building a grassroots base critical to her ultimate goal: the 2017 presidency. Local elections takes place today and the second round on March 29. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
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