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France shaken by Le Pen 'earthquake'

By Agnes Poirier, Special to CNN
May 26, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marine Le Pen's Front National extreme-right party came top in France's European elections
  • This is a historic achievement for the daughter of the party's founder, writes Agnes Poirier
  • France's political class, commentators had never thought such thing possible, she writes
  • Poirier: A collapse of national trust in the traditional Right and Left parties is revealed

Editor's note: Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, U.S., France, Italy. Follow @AgnesCPoirier on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Paris, France (CNN) -- The headlines scream: "Political tsunami," "earthquake" and "big bang."

European elections may have taken place in 28 different countries, but the results in just one of them proved the big story of the night. Who and what are we talking about? Marine Le Pen's Front National extreme-right party came top in France's European elections, with 25.41% of the vote. This is a historic achievement for the 46-year-old daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party's founder.

Agnes Poirier
Agnes Poirier

And if the newspaper headlines are to be believed, the consequences of that particular vote are going to be felt for a very long time, both nationally and internationally.

Listening to French radio and television through the night, there was no doubt that France's whole political class and commentators had never thought such thing possible, at least not on that scale. Some even succumbed to slight hysteria, live on French airwaves, including Laurent Wauquiez, France's former minister for European affairs, who advocated, quite simply, a return to the EU made only of its founding member states -- France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium -- plus Spain. From a Union of 28 countries back to a "hardcore" of seven.

The leader of France's "National Front"
German FM: Euro reforms must continue
Britain could leave the EU one day

A few days before the vote, in an open letter published both in German and French, in Die welt and Le Point, former president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that Europe should be divided up into three zones, with an end to the Schengen Agreement, which allows freedom of movement without passports between member states. It felt like panic; it was panic.

Le Pen's triumph reveals the collapse of national trust in the traditional Right and Left parties which have governed France for three generations since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Sarkozy's UMP party only managed to take 20.77% of the vote, while President Hollande's Socialist Party only attracted 13.97%. Centrists at 9.81% and Greens with 8.89% seem almost irrelevant.

While President Hollande has convened a crisis cabinet meeting at the Elysées Palace in order to prepare the next EU Council meeting in Brussels, a lot of people are left asking why a quarter of the French electorate cast their ballot in favor of the extreme right. Exit polls carried out by Harris Interactive suggest that anti-European sentiment is actually not the main reason. Domestic concerns always loom large in European elections. Only 22% of Le Pen voters say that they want out of the EU, according to the polls. The two main reasons cited are: "We need change" (43%) and "this is a protest against traditional parties of government" (37%.)

So, if this is not about Europe, after all, should President Hollande dissolve the National Assembly, as Marine Le Pen demanded? Should he resign? Two very unlikely scenarios but then, another question follows: What about the next presidential elections? A poll conducted immediately after the results on Sunday evening revealed that a majority of the French people wanted neither François Hollande nor Nicolas Sarkozy to run for presidency.

A little like in Italy where Italians gave a vote of confidence to Matteo Renzi (a man who has never been in government, is still untainted, and therefore represents "change") France is in search of fresh and untarnished politicians whose names have never appeared in scandals of any sort. It is no surprise to see that Manuel Valls, the recently-appointed French prime minister, feeling still rather new in the job, is one the most popular politicians in France. Marine Le Pen, although belonging to a family dynasty and to France's political establishment, also benefits from popularity only enjoyed by politicians who haven't been tarnished by government.

In other words, French voters want politics to be reinvented by a new generation. This, of course, may prove totally illusory, or the lightning bolt the French political class needs.

INTERACTIVE: That 'earthquake' in Europe? It's far-right gains in Parliament elections

INTERACTIVE: Counting the votes: How the European election works

INTERACTIVE: Protest parties shake up pivotal European elections

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Agnes Poirier.

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