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Far-right expects gains in French local elections

Polling for the first round of France's local elections is about to end. Interim voter turnout was higher than expected. Analysts predict advances for the conservatives and the far-right, anti-immigration National Front.

Polls opened across France's one hundred and one administrative regions (departments) on Sunday morning, with 4,100 local government seats being contested.

The number of voters was higher than expectedby later afternoon, after around 43 percent voters cast their ballots in the elections by 5 p.m. local time (1600 GMT), according to the official figures.

Although she's not on the ballot, Marine Le Pen is the center of attention, as

opinion polls ahead of the vote

showed her far-right National Front Party (FN) edging out the competition.

Victory over the ruling Socialists and the conservative UMP could lend momentum to Le Pen's possible 2017 presidential run. FN has capitalized on disappointment over France's dragging economy and the political controversy surrounding the integration of Islam into mainstream French society.

"We'll get stuck into the regions and then we're off to invade the Elysee," Le Pen said earlier this week, referring to the presidential palace in Paris.

Le Pen has consistently battled accusations that her anti-immigration, anti-gay marriage FN is "fascist," saying that

her policies play well with a large number of voters

who feel left behind by rapid social change.

UMP likely to make most gains

The polls gave the far-right about 30 percent of the overall vote, not too far ahead of conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, headed by former President Nicholas Sarkozy. Sarkozy forecast a "wave" of regions falling to the UMP after analysts predicted some Socialist voters might strategically choose the conservatives just to keep the FN off the second round runoff ballots on March 29.

This means the UMP will most likely make the most gains despite the opinion polls, with FN realistically aiming to win between one and four departments to add to their 24 European Patrliament seats and the three they have in Paris.

Sarkozy is also expected to challenge unpopular current President Francois Hollande in 2017, if he can hold onto power within the UMP, which has struggled to unite under a single leader since Sarkozy lost the French presidency in 2012.

In a new initiative this year, parties had to present a double ticket composed of one male and one female candidate in an effort to put an end to male dominance on local councils.

es/msh (AFP, AP)

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