Anne Hidalgo's victory in Paris was a small consolation for the French left. Photograph: Getty.
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French Socialists humiliated in local elections

Good news for Ukip, bad news for Labour.

France went to the polls yesterday to vote for mayors and councillors in over 36,000 municipalities. Results have barely made headlines in Britain. But all agree that the news is catastrophic for President Francois Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party, in what most have interpreted as a referendum on the state of national government.

The Socialists were braced for humiliation. Last’s week’s first-round elections saw them poll 43 per cent of the popular vote versus the 48 per cent garnered by the conservative UMP opposition. Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National (FN) won a respectable 7 per cent of the country and managed to capture outright the northern town of Hénin-Beaumont. That was a remarkable achievement for a party once associated with thuggery and anti-Semitism, but which is now positioned as a eurosceptic insurgency.

The Socialists lost 151 large towns and cities on Sunday, although they retain control of Paris, which welcomes its first female mayor. The victory of Spanish-born Anne Hidalgo will offer a template for the expected candidacies of Oona King, Diane Abbott and Tessa Jowell in the 2016 London mayoral race. But Paris was the left’s only consolation on a day Le Monde called “a bloodbath of which we find no equivalent in the history of municipal elections”. Turnout was 63.5 per cent, which is high by British standards but historically low for a country in which mayors wield considerable power.

Voters have delivered a damning verdict on the Socialist presidency. They are above all frustrated by Hollande's management of an economy whose key indicators are lagging behind those of Germany and the UK. French unemployment edged above 4.9 million in February, whilst growth and foreign investment remain in a slump. Hollande’s style of leadership – widely perceived as amateurish – is another object of dissatisfaction. The president’s approval ratings have been in freefall for months, and he now has the distinction of being the most unpopular leader in the history of the Fifth Republic. A cabinet reshuffle is imminent; Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will almost certainly be shown the door. He has already taken partial blame for the Socialist rout on national television.

British observers will draw lessons from events across the Channel. UKIP should be encouraged by the wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment carrying insurgents like Le Pen and Geert Wilders – the peroxide populist who heads the Dutch Party for Freedom – up national polls. The FN has shown how vulnerable mainstream parties are to hardline eurosceptics in economically depressed and ethnically diverse communities. Marseille, France’s troubled second city, remains in the hands of Jean-Claude Gaudin of the UMP, but FN support there is on the rise.

Ed Miliband will of course be alarmed by the decline of the French left. The Labour leader welcomed Hollande’s election in May 2012 as a blow against Teutonic austerity, but the socialist alternative in France has proved neither successful nor popular. High tax policies have generated unrest in Paris and Brittany, while Hollande’s 75 per cent super levy on millionaires (compare to Milband’s support for the 50p rate on top earners) has upset football clubs and led to the prominent exile of actor Gérard Depardieu, who now attacks Parisian bolshevism from the safety of Vladimir Putin’s court.

Miliband and Hollande also share a political personality. Both have fashioned themselves as honest, serious, old-fashioned leftists standing in opposition to scandal-ridden conservative regimes. But Hollande’s reputation for dullness will unnerveLabour strategists who are struggling to contain similar allegations against their leader. Red in western Europe is becoming grey.

Britain next goes to the polls in May for the European Parliament. That vote will most likely produce similar stories about the ascendancy of the eurosceptic right. Voters on both sides of the Channel are showing themselves increasingly willing to punish mainstream parties for the failure to tackle an economic crisis that has been rumbling on for seven years.

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.