Far right makes breakthrough as Hollande allies flounder in French local vote
France's anti-immigrant National Front (FN) scored gains in first-round town hall elections and took control of a former Socialist bastion as voters punished President Francois Hollande and his left-wing allies.
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.
A second round of voting is due next Sunday but FN leader Marine Le Pen, who has softened the party's image since taking over from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011, said advances made in the first round already marked a major breakthrough.
"The National Front has arrived as a major independent force - a political force both at the national and local level," Le Pen, who scored 18 percent in the 2012 presidential election, told TF1 television.
An exit poll by pollster BVA put Hollande's Socialists and their left-wing allies at 43 percent of the vote, trailing opposition conservatives whose 48 percent put them on track to reverse Socialist gains made in the 2008 municipal elections.
The FN scored seven percent of the vote, BVA estimated, a high national tally given that it only fielded candidates in 596 out of some 36,000 municipalities across France.
Its candidate Steeve Briois was declared winner with an outright majority of votes in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, a former coalmining centre with 125,000 inhabitants that has long been in Socialist hands.
Exit polls put it ahead in the eastern town of Forbach in France's former industrial heartland. In the south, it was in the lead in Avignon, Perpignan, Beziers and Frejus and vying for second place in Marseille behind the conservative incumbent.
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.
Other polls gave Kosciusko-Morizet a better showing, but the mayor is chosen by the city council and analysts say the power balance there favours the Socialists.