Crunch time for Francois Hollande's Socialists in French local elections

National Front set to take seats from unpopular president's Socialist party and mainstream right

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 5:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 5:53am


France holds municipal elections today amid tension between the Socialist government, battling record unpopularity, and the main opposition beset by scandal, while the far right is heading for a strong showing.

The contest is the first nationwide vote since Socialist leader Francois Hollande was elected as president two years ago.

It comes as the centre-right UMP has been hit by a corruption probe and other scandals allegedly involving former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Tensions reached a peak just ahead of the polls with Sarkozy likening the court-ordered phone tapping on him to methods employed by East Germany's dreaded Stasi police, drawing a sharp reprimand from Hollande.

Amid the flagging fortunes of the two main parties, the National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen is on the rise. The far-right party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is fielding a record number of candidates in the municipal elections.

Marine Le Pen has voiced her confidence and the party hopes to wrest control of 10 to 15 cities.

Under France's run-off system, any party that wins 10 per cent of the vote goes forward to a second round.

A strong first-round showing will not necessarily translate into the FN securing control of many local authorities, and it is only contesting about one in five municipalities.

But an outcome on the lines indicated by the most recent opinion polls would nevertheless send shockwaves through French politics.

Hollande, who failed to keep a pledge to rein in record joblessness by the end of last year, is the most unpopular president in recent French history.

About 30 per cent of voters have indicated they intend to punish the government for its perceived failures on key issues such as jobs, although experts play down the likely impact of recent scandals.

Le Pen, who gained 17.9 per cent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, has urged voters to reject candidates from a "system that is taking French political life down the gutter".

Le Pen believes France has lost its sovereignty to the European Union and wants to see an end to open borders across the continent and laws being made in Brussels for EU member states.

Her anti-immigration and Eurosceptic views are shared by many voters.

In Paris, under the control of Socialists for 13 years, there is a historic tussle between two women candidates.

Socialist deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo is fighting a challenge from the UMP's Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former minister in Sarkozy's government.