France's conservative UMP and ultranationalist National Front have made gains over President Francois Hollande's Socialists in the first round of municipal elections. Runoff votes will take place next week.
Francois Hollande's Socialists struggled in their first national electoral test since their 2012 president election victory on Sunday, losing ground in more than 36,000 municipal races around the country.
The BVA polling company said that its exit polls suggested that left-leaning candidates had scored a combined 43 percent of the vote, compared to 48 percent for right-of-center candidates.
The leader of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) center-right opposition, Jean-Francois Cope, predicted a "big victory" for his party in the second round, based on early results.
The far-right, anti-immigration and anti-EU National Front (FN) scored 7 percent of the vote, according to the BVA projections, a high national tally considering that the party only fielded candidates for around 600 of the seats.
"The National Front has arrived as a major independent force - a political force both at the national and the local level," party leader Marine Le Pen told TF1 television. The FN candidate in the northern former mining town of Henin Beaumont, Steeve Briois, looked set for an outright majority, while several other FN candidates appeared well placed going into the second round of voting.
Parisian battle too close to call
Another poll, conducted by TNS Sofres, suggested the embattled Socialists held a slight lead in perhaps the most important vote. Parisian mayoral candidate Anne Hidalgo was placed just in the lead against conservative rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet - with the pair battling to become the capital's first female mayor.
Runoff votes will be held in Paris and the vast majority of French municipalities next Sunday. Only candidates winning an outright majority in the first round of voting can claim the seat without a runoff.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault this week appealed to the UMP to call on its voters in municipalities where the UMP scores poorly to vote Socialist instead, to keep the FN at bay. He promised the Socialists would do the same in municipalities where the conservatives had the edge, a position the party seemed to again float after the first round of voting.
"The position of the Socialist Party is very clear: we will do everything we can to stop an FN candidate from winning a municipality," party spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said on France 2 television Sunday evening.
Voter turnout was estimated at around the 66.5 percent level of the last municipal elections in 2008 - which marked a record low for France's 56-year-old Fifth Republic.
msh/dr (AFP, Reuters)