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[STRASBOURG] President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialists won a hotly-contested parliamentary by-election in eastern France on Sunday, narrowly beating a National Front rival after the conservative UMP candidate was eliminated in a first round.
Mr Hollande has seen his popularity ratings double from record lows in the wake of last month's Islamist attacks in Paris. Underscoring the stakes of the election, senior Socialists including Prime Minister Manuel Valls travelled to the Doubs to support their candidate.
Still, Marine Le Pen's far-right, anti-immigrant National Front has seized on dissatisfaction with mainstream parties in industrial or rural areas where unemployment is higher. It hopes to see gains in departmental elections in just over a month.
Socialist Frederic Barbier won 51.4 per cent of votes, just ahead of National Front candidate Sophie Montel in the industrial north of the Doubs department.
The win of the seat left vacant by Pierre Moscovici, a Socialist deputy appointed as an EU commissioner, will be a relief for Mr Hollande's party whose control of the National Assembly was weakened by the defection last month of one of their lawmakers to the far-left.
In the first round, the National Front's Ms Montel came out ahead with 32.6 per cent, while Mr Barbier came in second with 28.9 per cent, ahead of the UMP contender.
The fact that the UMP's candidate was eliminated in the first round has led some observers to suggest its leader, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, has lost his ability to mobilize right-leaning voters. His authority has been further undermined by a row within the UMP over which message to give to party faithful in the second round, with the party finally urging them to abstain.
A poll by Odoxa found that 68 per cent of respondees said his authority as a political figure had been undermined by the saga.