Polls have closed in France's local elections, which are seen as a barometer of support for President Francois Hollande and his Socialist party. Analysts predict a turn to the right.
French citizens voted at polling places in the first round of municipal elections on Sunday, choosing mayors and councilors in 36,000 constituencies, from small agricultural hamlets to major cities like Marseille and Paris.
The elections are the first nationwide vote since Francois Hollande was elected president in 2012.
Initial reports after polls closed at 6 p.m. local time (1700 UTC) indicated that voter turnout was low this year. The Interior Ministry said only 54.72 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by 5 p.m, slightly less than the total of 56.25 percent recorded at the same stage of the 2008 vote.
Polls have suggested about one in four voters was considering voting for the anti-immigration, anti-European Union party the National Front (FN) which is led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The increasing popularity of the National Front comes as Hollande battles record low approval ratings – about 19 percent in recent polls – and the opposition conservative UMP party is caught up in scandals involving former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Voter turnout is also expected to be low by French standards, with fears the turnout rate among the 44.5 million registered voters may fall below 60 percent.
Division, abstention favor National Front
While almost a million people – one out of 60 members of France's population - are standing as candidates, disenchantment with mainstream parties has worked to the advantage of the far-right National Front.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault this week asked the opposition UMP party to ask its voters to back rival Socialist candidates in towns where the UMP stood no chance of winning, saying the Socialists would return the favor in a combined effort to keep the National Front out.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who took over in 2011 and scored almost 18 percent of the national vote in the first round of presidential elections two years ago, has worked to "detoxify" the party's image following her father's convictions for holocaust denial and inciting racial hatred.
Groundbreaking for women
Whatever the final outcome of voting, Paris is set to have its first female mayor. Polls indicate a neck-and-neck battle for the capital between the city's current deputy mayor and Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo (pictured), and former Sarkozy minister Nathalie Kosciuscko-Morizet.
Voting began earlier in French overseas territories, such as New Caledonia and the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
Parties and candidates need to gain at least 10 percent of the vote to remain in the race for the second round run-off, scheduled for March 30.
se/tj (AFP, Reuters)