French National Front is "fascist, extremist" - German minister

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble on Tuesday branded the French National Front party fascist and extremist after the anti-immigrant Eurosceptics shocked Europe by coming first in France's European Parliament elections.

The victory of Marine Le Pen's FN was part of wider gains in the European vote by anti-EU parties which left the 28-member European Union licking its wounds. Anti-establishment parties from the left also made inroads.

In France, the FN not only topped a national vote for the first time but pushed ruling Socialists there into a lowly third place, prompting Prime Minister Manuel Valls to speak of a political "earthquake".

"Not only for our French colleagues, we have to (ask ourselves) what mistakes we made if a quarter of the (French) electorate voted for … not a right-wing party but for a fascist, extremist party," Schaeuble, speaking in English, told a conference in Berlin.

Le Pen has sought to rid the FN of its extremist reputation since she took the reins from her father in 2011. She campaigned on a platform of tighter borders, hostility to the euro currency and rejection of a planned EU-US free trade deal. The FN calls itself a "patriotic" party and rejects the far-right label.

Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen once described the Nazi gas chambers as a "detail of history" and Le Pen herself has also been accused of inciting racial hatred for comparing Muslim street prayers to the occupation of France by Nazi Germany.

She has said that wherever racism exists within the ranks of the FN it has been punished.

France was a founding member of the European Union but voters have grown increasingly disenchanted with the bloc's free-market and open-border policies in recent years, rejecting a proposed EU constitution in a 2005 referendum.

"(Europe) is not possible without Italy and it certainly is not possible without France," noted Schaeuble, a self-styled francophile.

The German conservative is no stranger to political controversy. Earlier this year he compared Russia's moves against Ukraine to Adolf Hitler's aggression in 1938 that led to the annexation of German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia.

Reacting to the far right's triumph in Sunday's vote, French President Francois Hollande on Monday pledged to press ahead with reforms at home and pushed for the EU to change tack, saying voters felt Europe was not protecting them.

(Reporting by Annika Breidthardt in Berlin and Mark John in Paris; editing by Nicholas Vinocur)