New PM, first female Paris mayor on agenda in French vote

A combination of pictures made on March 28, 2014 in Paris shows French right-wing UMP party candidate for the Paris 2014 mayoral elections Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (left) posing on February 17, 2014 in Paris and Socialist Party (PS) candidate for t
A combination of pictures made on March 28, 2014 in Paris shows French right-wing UMP party candidate for the Paris 2014 mayoral elections Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (left) posing on February 17, 2014 in Paris and Socialist Party (PS) candidate for the March 2014 Mayoral elections in Paris Anne Hidalgo posing on February 20, 2014 in Paris. French voters go to the polls on Sunday, March 30, 2014 for a second round of local elections that will result in Paris having a female mayor for the first time and, possibly, the country having a new prime minister. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - French voters go to the polls on Sunday for a second round of local elections that will result in Paris having a female mayor for the first time and, possibly, the country having a new prime minister.

With the ruling Socialists facing a drubbing, President Francois Hollande is expected to react by ordering major changes at the top of his beleaguered government. Popular Interior Minister Manuel Valls is widely tipped to replace current premier Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The vote, in which the first ballots were cast in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, is also predicted to result in the far-right National Front establishing an unprecedented footprint in France's local government by winning control of as many as a dozen mid-sized towns.

In Paris, Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo will be hoping to resist the national swing against her party and keep the French capital under the control of the left.

But all the signs are that it will be extremely close after a better-than-expected first-round showing by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former minister for the centre-right UMP party who is Hidalgo's rival to join a very small club of women who have run major cities around the world.

The FN also performed better than expected in the first round last Sunday and the results generally were interpreted as a signal of exasperation amongst voters with the Hollande government's failure to get a stagnant French economy moving again and reverse the upward march of unemployment.

Mr Ayrault is widely expected to be made the principal scapegoat for that and Mr Valls, the government's most popular figure, is favourite to replace him.

Mr Hollande is also reportedly considering bringing veteran industrialist Louis Gallois and/or former World Trade Organisation director Pascal Lamy into the cabinet in a move that would reinforce his recent attempts to foster a more pro-business image.

The president's former partner, Segolene Royal, is also tipped for a comeback following his separation from girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler in January after revelations of his affair with actress Julie Gayet. Ms Trierweiler reportedly vetoed Ms Royal from being included in Mr Hollande's first candidate despite the mother of his four children being a long-established Socialist Party heavyweight.

In the first round, Ms Marine Le Pen's FN took five percent of the nationwide vote - up from 0.9 percent in the first round of the last municipal polls in 2008 - despite only being able to field candidates in a minority of municipalities.

Where it did present lists, the FN performed better than expected. It claimed the mayor's seat in Henin-Beaumont in northern France at the first attempt with just over 50 percent of the vote.

Ms Le Pen is hoping to see FN-backed mayors installed in at least another dozen towns on Sunday evening.

The party has controlled a handful of local authorities in the past but does not have a good record in terms of competent administration.

Ms Le Pen, who has made strenuous efforts to forge a new, more respectable image for the party founded by her father Jean-Marie, is looking to establish a local base which will allow the party to demonstrate it can be more than an outlet for voters' frustrations.

In an interview with Le Monde this weekend, she said: "What we lack at the moment is a positive report card. That is important. With that we can move to a higher level."

Ms Le Pen, who took over the FN leadership in 2011, has been credited with broadening the appeal of a party regarded as taboo by many voters in light of her father's repeated convictions for Holocaust denial and inciting racial hatred.

The best-known city that could fall to the FN is Avignon, famed for its annual international arts festival, which organisers say will be pulled out if Ms Le Pen's party takes over.