France's National Front sees town halls in its grasp
France's anti-immigrant National Front (FN) has surged to power in one former Socialist town-hall bastion and expects more victories in local elections where voters punished President Francois Hollande for failing to tackle unemployment.
In what leader Marine Le Pen called a breakthrough for her protectionist anti-EU party, the FN won power in the northern former coal-mining town Henin-Beaumont in a first-round vote on Sunday, and leads in at least six other towns before run-offs scheduled for next week.
With turnout levels close to record lows after a series of political scandals that have hit mainstream French politicians of both left and right, Hollande's Socialists and their allies won just 43 percent of the national vote, behind 48 percent for opposition conservatives, exit polls showed.
The FN won 7 percent of the national vote - a proportionately high amount, given that it fielded candidates in just 600 of the some 36,000 constituencies across France.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged voters across the spectrum to back whatever candidate was best placed to beat FN rivals in Sunday's second round.
A triumphant Le Pen said she was not interested in voter pacts with the mainstream right even if that could win her a greater presence on town hall councils.
"The National Front is taking root just as it wanted to do - and the crop is pretty exceptional," she told TFI television.
Exit polls put the National Front ahead in the eastern town of Forbach in France's former industrial heartland. In the south, the anti-EU party was in the lead in Avignon, Perpignan, Beziers and Frejus, and vying for second place in Marseille behind the conservative incumbent.
If it manages to secure three more towns, the National Front would beat its previous record in 1995, when it entered three town halls and a fourth, two years later.
Those experiences were, however, bitter ones for the party as its attempts to run municipal services underlined its lack of competence as a party of power.
There was some solace for the Socialists as a TNS Sofres exit poll showed their candidate for Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, well ahead of her conservative rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
The elections in thousands of constituencies across France were the first nationwide voter test for Hollande, who came to power in May 2012 and has seen his popularity slump to record lows for failing to rein in unemployment stuck above 10 percent and after a series of policy mishaps by his cabinet team.
If losses are confirmed in next week's voting, that could speed up a long-expected government reshuffle, although it is unclear what impact that would have on the more pro-business line Hollande has adopted since the start of this year.
If the UMP fails to convincingly capitalise on the wide disenchantment with Hollande, that could trigger a race to replace its current leader Jean-Francois Cope as party chairman.
Cope, a protege of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, already has weak poll ratings.
Sarkozy has hinted at a goal of standing again for president in 2017 despite being named in a number of legal investigations into improper party funding and other irregularities. He has denied any wrongdoing.