The debate over this by-election has raised crucial political questions.
It came about as a result of the forced resignation of the Socialist Party’s budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, after it scandalously emerged that he had a secret tax-avoiding Swiss bank account loaded with cash .
Cahuzac had been elected at last year’s legislative elections with 64 per cent of the vote in the second round after winning 49 per cent of the vote at the first round to the UMP’s 28 per cent and the NF’s 15 per cent.
But this time the Socialist candidate was eliminated in the first round with 24 per cent of the vote, while the NF went through to the second round for the first time ever in this constituency with 26 per cent against the UMP’s 29 per cent.
The SP claims this was due to the scandal of the Cahuzac affair, but this huge drop in the SP vote cannot be just put down to this.
This fall in support appears to be a general trend: the Socialist Party has lost eight seats in recent by-elections.
This is the price being paid for the austerity measures which instead of solving the economic crisis, are plunging the country into greater stagnation and soaring unemployment.
This has led to the extreme unpopularity of the SP government to an extent never seen before after only one year in office.
In these circumstances, facing a choice between the UMP and NF at the second round is likely to become a repeated pattern.
The UMP is undergoing an internal crisis and a fragmentation since the defeat of Sarkozy. Its economic programme is just as unacceptable to the French working class as Hollande’s, therefore it is turning to the populist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and homophobic positions that have been the territory of the NF.
The resulting similarity in the rhetoric of the two parties of the right poses the electorate with a dilemma when faced with a UMP/NF run off. Voting for the ‘republican’ parties against the NF becomes a less compelling necessity when the difference between them appear so tiny.
This explains the 14.5 per cent of voters who deliberately cast a ‘no' or blank vote in Villeneuve.
But the bigger issue is the rise of the NF.
In Villeneuve sur Lot it appears that left votes in the first round split three ways in the second round: a section voted for the UMP candidate, another section cast a 'no' vote, and it seems very likely (we will know when the exact results are at last released) that a section shifted from the left to vote for the NF.
Far from winning over its electorate, the UMP turn to NF rhetoric has led to an increase in support for the NF, which came very close to winning its third seat in parliament at Villeneuve sur Lot.
A recent poll says that 26 per cent of the electorate could vote NF at a national election and 29 per cent at a local one. The de-demonisation of the NF is growing apace.
In recent months there has been growing activity including violence by Nazi-type groups. Boosted by the anti-gay marriage mobilisations in France, these neo-fascist groups have assaulted gays and lesbians, migrants, Roma, and Jewish people and locations.
They have also targeted anti-racist and other activists. This led to the shocking murder of the anti-fascist youth Clement Meric, 18 years old, which brought thousands of people in the streets in revulsion and protest.
However other attacks have received less attention from the media. In particular in recent months skinheads have assaulted Muslim women wearing the hijab in a number of different towns.
Three Muslim women were violently assaulted in Argenteuil, a town in the suburbs of Paris, leading to one losing her baby. This provoked major protests organized by the Muslim community, which turned out in numbers.
The need to build an effective movement against fascism, racism and Islamophobia, which involves the labour movement, is the most important political task in France.
Among its tasks it must demonstrate the link between the ideas and politics of Marine Lepen’s party and this unacceptable upsurge of racist and neo-Nazi violence.