France is voting Sunday in a first round of local elections with the ruling Socialists battling record low approval and the main opposition UMP hit by scandal, setting the stage for a possible strong showing for the far-right National Front.
The first nationwide vote since President François Hollande's 2012 election takes place with the ruling Socialists dogged by a weak economy and the centre-right UMP mired in scandals embroiling former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Recent polls have suggested that around one in four voters are considering casting their votes for the National Front, in what could be a breakthrough election for the anti-immigration, anti-EU party led by Marine Le Pen.
Paris is also set to elect its first female mayor, with Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, the favourite to succeed her current boss, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë. But it promises to be a close race against Sarkozy's former environment minister, Nathalie Kosciuscko-Morizet, with last-minute polls indicating the battle for the capital is far from a foregone conclusion.
Voter turnout, which is expected to hit record lows due to widespread disenchantment with the mainstream parties, was at 23% at midday, the interior ministry said. Participation rates are officially tallied at noon and at 5pm on election days in France.
Just under a million people (nearly one in 60 of the population) will stand as candidates in an election that will produce over 36,000 new mayors for municipalities ranging from the tiniest of agricultural hamlets to metropolises like Lyon, Marseille and Paris.
New image for the National Front
Marine Le Pen believes her party could claim the mayorship of 10 to 15 mid-sized towns – a remarkable turnaround for a party that at the last municipals in 2008 was plagued by financial crisis and internal bickering, and looked destined for the margins of French politics.
Le Pen took over the leadership in 2011 and set about broadening the appeal of a party best known for the repeated convictions of her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, under French laws against holocaust denial and inciting racial hatred.
As well as trying to de-toxify the FN's image, Le Pen has attempted to make it less of a single-issue anti-immigration party by campaigning on unemployment, living costs and crime. Polls and pundits suggest that is prudent, as local elections tend to be decided on such local issues.
Under France's two-round, run-off system, any party that secures 10 percent backing in the first round has the right to present candidates in the second round on March 31.
A strong showing by the FN could see Sarkozy's centre-right UMP eliminated at the first hurdle in some contests, or see the overall right-wing vote divided in three-way run-offs, thereby boosting the Socialists.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-03-23