The record high share of votes garnered by France’s far-right political party, the National Front, in the first round of regional elections Sunday positions its leader, Marine Le Pen, as a serious presidential contender for 2017 and leaves far-right and mainstream parties across the Continent scrambling to recalibrate their messages.
Polls suggest that the National Front will likely be unable to match its success in the second round of voting Sunday because one-on-one votes will favor the more traditional parties. But analysts and politicians alike say the votes this month have underscored the reality that the issues dominating the political scene — terrorism and a seemingly unstoppable wave of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan seeking to crash into the European Union — play to the strengths of the National Front and other anti-immigration movements in Europe.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who heads the country’s center-left Social Democrats, spoke for many when he called the French vote this week “a wake-up call for all democrats in Europe.”
“It is, of course, a shock when right-wing extremists achieve such a result and become the strongest political force in the first round of voting in France — one of the founding members of the EU in the heart of Europe,” he said.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in a Facebook post, warned that the National Front and other populist parties will grow in popularity unless EU institutions make major changes. If the European Union and traditional parties don’t adapt, he said, they will become “the best allies of Marine Le Pen and those who try to imitate her.”
France’s biggest parties, including the ruling Socialists under President Francois Hollande and the center-right Republicans of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, are strategizing ahead of the runoff elections by agreeing to support each other’s candidates to defeat National Front rivals.
But results of the Sunday vote already have sent shock waves through France. Many National Front critics agree with Ms. Le Pen’s Monday-morning analysis that the traditional parties are “crumbling” and that “the French people are sick and tired of that old political world.”
“These are unprecedented scores,” Guillaume Tabard, a political columnist for the French newspaper Le Figaro, said in an interview. “We have reached proportions that such a [right-wing] party had never ever reached until today.”
In a survey conducted by Carnegie Europe, top analysts said the main centrist parties in France had committed many of the mistakes of their counterparts in Western Europe and the U.S. by failing to address legitimate voter worries about globalization, security and the erosion of traditional cultural standards.
“To push back against populism, the liberal center must move out of its comfort zone and get into a battle of ideas with populists,” said Ulrich Speck, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Transatlantic Academy. “Just dismissing populists as dangerous is not going to work. Imitating them only makes things worse.”
The anti-European Union, anti-immigration National Front swept more than 30 percent of the votes in the first round of elections, at the top in six of the 13 French regions. The National Front scored more 40 percent in two regions — Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Cote-D’Azur — and qualified for the second round of voting to determine the winners in every region.
“There clearly is a National Front electoral wave,” said political analyst Nonna Mayer of the National Center for Scientific Research, a public think tank.
The National Front even has a breakout star: Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a 26-year-old niece of Marine Le Pen and granddaughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. She was one of the big vote-getters Sunday in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur.
Like other National Front candidates, however, she faces a difficult challenge reaching a majority in the runoff.
Shedding the anti-Semitic overtones that dogged it for decades under Mr. Le Pen’s leadership, the National Front has been surging in the polls as economic stagnation has eroded job opportunities and thousands of Middle Eastern and North African refugees have flooded into the country.
In the 2012 presidential elections, Marine Le Pen scored 18 percent of the nationwide vote. The National Front won 25 percent in the 2014 European elections and a similar proportion in local elections in March.
The Islamic State group’s bombing and shooting rampage last month in Paris gave the party a big boost among voters who have come to see the country’s elite as feckless in the face of mass migration and terrorism.
Ten months before the terrorist assault, al Qaeda-linked militants attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery.
In addition, the refugee crisis has reached epic proportions.
“What has made a sharp difference is the climate of fear,” said Ms. Mayer. The terror and refugee issues “gave a little nudge to a dynamic that had already been long in place.”
A vote in favor of the National Front has long been perceived as a protest vote in France — a way to send a message to leaders, whether from the right or from the left.
But that dynamic is changing, Mr. Tabard said.
Voters are increasingly serious about putting Ms. Le Pen and other far-right leaders in positions of power, at least at the regional level.
“People are saying, ‘The others have failed,’ so they have nothing to lose to try for another solution,” he said. “They feel they must go for something radically different,” he said.
Marine Le Pen, for example, is given a good chance of winning the presidency of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, a job that would give her a high-profile position if she runs for the French presidency next year.
“Don’t worry; I can work hard,” she said on French television channel France3 on Monday when asked whether she could run the National Front and serve as the region’s chief executive. “If I am a candidate, it’s because obviously I will do the job. I will go all the way until I am elected president.”
Ms. Le Pen has good reason to be confident, Mr. Tabard said. “Marine Le Pen has the largest electorate, as well as the most solid and loyal. The probability of Marine Le Pen to make it to the second round of presidential elections is more than strong,” he said.
Other far-right parties in Europe, sounding similar themes on immigration, Islam and terrorism, have made inroads without coming close to power.
Britain’s anti-EU U.K. Independence Party performed unexpectedly in national elections in May, although it won only one seat and its leader, Nigel Farage, rejected any idea of an alliance with the National Front.
In Germany, street demonstrations organized by the anti-Islam Pegida movement have surged in recent weeks in the wake of the Paris attacks and the migrant crisis.
The French presidential elections also go through two rounds, with a runoff ballot if no one secures a majority. Ms. Le Pen’s rivals, the Republican and Socialist parties, should be nervous, he said, because she might knock out one of them on the first round of voting — a potentially humiliating defeat.
“This historical victory will spring an era of turbulence on both the Socialist and the Republican parties,” he said. “They will be faced with the fear of not qualifying for the second round in 2017. Fear generates internal turmoil and divisions rather than mobilization.”
Analysts say the successes of the National Front and other protest parties are unlikely to die out soon, challenging mainstream leaders to address what Martin Quencez, a Paris-based program officer of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, calls “a vague but deeply rooted need for change” among voters.
“This feeling stems from the traditional governing parties’ inability to propose credible political and ideological alternatives to what has already been attempted — and has failed,” he said.
• David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.