The French voted Sunday in the first round of local elections that could see the far-right surge as the Socialist government battles record unpopularity and the main opposition is beset by scandal.
Voters are most likely to pick their mayors based on local issues that affect them directly in areas such as taxation, security or unemployment, in the first nationwide polls since Francois Hollande was elected as president in 2012.
But there is concern that some Socialist party loyalists, disillusioned by the government’s track record as unemployment remains sky-high and the economy stagnates, will not turn out to vote.
Corruption scandals that have affected the main opposition UMP party as well as former president Nicolas Sarkozy could also alienate some centre-right voters.
As such, polls suggest around one in four voters are considering casting their votes for the far-right National Front (FN) in what could be a significant election for the anti-immigration, anti-EU party led by Marine Le Pen.
The vote is also set to be a groundbreaking one for women in the French capital: whatever the final outcome of the two rounds of voting on consecutive Sundays, Paris is poised to elect its first female mayor.
– Over 36,000 new mayors –
Just under a million people (nearly one in 60 of the population) are standing 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.
And despite a series of much-publicised selfies posted on Twitter by people who voted, concerns that voter turnout may be dismally low were heightened after four different polls suggested general abstention would reach around 35 percent — a record for French municipal elections.
By 1600 GMT, voter turnout was at 54.7 percent, lower than the 56.3 percent registered at the same time in 2008 municipal elections, the interior ministry said.
This is not expected to affect the far-right party of Le Pen, who believes the FN could claim the mayorship of 10 to 15 mid-sized towns.
That would represent a remarkable turnaround for a party that, at the time of the last municipals, was mired in financial crisis and internal bickering, and looked in danger of falling to the margins of French politics.
Marine Le Pen took over the 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.
On Sunday, she cast her vote in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, where FN candidate Steeve Briois could take the mayorship from the left-leaning incumbent.
“The voters will decide. I trust them,” she said, smiling to the cameras.
As well as trying to “detoxify” the FN’s image, the younger Le Pen has attempted to make it less of a single-issue party by campaigning on unemployment, living costs, crime and promising change.
And as France struggles with near-zero economic growth, her efforts appear to be paying off.
In Henin-Beaumont, a 26,000-strong former mining town, some of those voting for the FN said they wanted change.
“We don’t expect much any more from politicians… Briois, we don’t know, he has never held power. Shouldn’t we give him a chance?” asked Gilles, a 67-year-old voter.
Under the two-round, run-off system for the elections, any party which secures 10 percent backing in the first round has the right to present candidates in the second round on March 30.
– FN seeks new image –
Past FN attempts at running local councils have often failed as a result of the eccentric personalities involved, but Le Pen wants to show that the party is capable of prudent governance.
The FN’s power has steadily grown. Its proposals on immigration — curbing rights to family reunion and seeking a review of freedom of movement rules within the EU — have been endorsed by key figures in Sarkozy’s UMP.
And its opposition to any further transfer of powers to European institutions is shared across the EU, not only by the radical, populist parties growing strongly in several countries, but also by much of the mainstream.
In Paris, meanwhile, the Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, is the favourite to succeed her current boss Bertrand Delanoe as mayor.
But she looks set to be run extremely close by former Sarkozy minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, with last-minute polls indicating a neck-and-neck battle.