PARIS (AFP) - France's far-right National Front party dealt a major blow to the ruling Socialists on Sunday, March 23, 2014, after several of its candidates took prime position in the first round of local elections.
The main centre-right opposition UMP party also hailed a "big victory" as initial estimates showed it came out trumps in the elections, amid severe disillusion with President Francois Hollande's government against a backdrop of near-zero growth and high unemployment.
According to a BVA poll, the UMP and allies took 48 per cent of the vote nationwide while the Socialist party and allies took 43 per cent, and the FN seven per cent - far higher than its 0.9 percent result in the first round of 2008 municipal polls.
Applauding what she said was "an exceptional vintage for the FN", Ms Marine Le Pen - head of the anti-immigration, anti-EU party - said the polls marked the "end of the bipolarisation of the political scene".
Although the FN had been expected to do well, the first round results were far better than expected for a party that hopes to claim the mayorship of 10 to 15 mid-sized towns after the second round on March 30.
Far-right candidates got a majority of votes in several key towns and cities that will put them in pole position in the second round.
In the former coal-mining town of Henin-Beaumont in northern France, Mr Steeve Briois went a step further and achieved 50.3 per cent, an absolute majority which made him the outright winner and mayor.
Under municipal election rules in France, any candidate who gets more than 50 per cent is declared the winner and there is no need for a second round.
The Socialists immediately responded to the surge of the FN by acknowledging that some voters had registered their discontent with current government policies.
"Some voters expressed their concerns, and even their doubts, by abstaining or through their vote," Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said.
Turnout was expected to be dismally low after four different polls suggested general abstention would reach at least 35 per cent - a record for French municipal elections.
Mr Ayrault called on voters to rally in the second round to block the "advance of the FN", in a mirror of 2002 presidential elections when then FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round, prompting the Socialist Party to urge support for centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac.
"Where the National Front is in a situation where it could win the second round, all democratic and Republican forces have the responsibility to create the conditions to stop it from doing so," he said on France 2 television.
The leader of the UMP party meanwhile called on those who had voted for the FN to "carry over their vote" onto UMP candidates in the second round.
Mr Jean-Francois Cope predicted a "big victory" for his party in the second round, in a sign that corruption scandals that have affected the UMP as well as former president Nicolas Sarkozy had little impact.
In the French capital, meanwhile, all eyes were on Ms Anne Hidalgo, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, and former Sarkozy minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet - both engaged in a fierce battle that will see Paris get its first ever female mayor.
Ms Hidalgo had largely been tipped as the favourite, but in surprise initial estimates, Ms Kosciusko-Morizet came slightly ahead in the first round.
The mayorship of the French capital is the most high profile of municipal elections that will produce over 36,000 new mayors for villages, towns and cities across France.
And while very few of these will be from the FN, the Sunday results are a remarkable turnaround for a party that, at the time of the last municipals, was mired in financial crisis and internal bickering.
Ms Le Pen took over the FN leadership in 2011 and set about 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.
As well as trying to "detoxify" the FN's image, she has attempted to make it less of a single-issue party by campaigning on unemployment, costs of living and crime - local issues close to people's hearts.
Past FN attempts at running local councils have often failed as a result of the eccentric personalities involved, but Ms Le Pen has been eager to show that the party is capable of prudent governance.
"We want to become apparent as a big local political force," Ms Le Pen said on Sunday.