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Sarkozy and Le Pen expected to make gains as polls close in France

Polls have closed across France in local elections. Eyeing 2017 national elections, ex-President Sarkozy is hoping his conservatives can take slowly regain power as the ruling-Socialists' popularity wanes.

Exit polls on Sunday evening indicated another victory for ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and its allies.

Early information from CSA polling firms - as reported by news agency AFP - gave Sarkozy's coalition between 64 and 70 of local councils. Meanwhile, it said that between 27 and 37 councils had gone to President Francois Hollande's Socialists and its left-wing parties, which had a dismal showing of 21.8 percent last Sunday.

"Never ... has our political family won so many councils," Sarkozy told supporters, saying the outcome showed that France had "massively rejected the policies of Francois Hollande and his government."

Last week, Le Pen's far-right party received 25.35 percent of the vote. It was expected to reflect these gains again on Sunday.

Voter turnout dropped slightly during the second-round of voting. According to the Interior Ministry, only 41.94 percent of registered voters had turned out by 5 p.m. local time (1600 UTC), roughly three hours before polls closed, compared to 42.98 percent last week.

Socialists want to block FN power grab

This round of voting has drawn the interest of France's major parties - the ruling Socialists and the UMP - who are trying to gauge the threat Marine Le Pen's anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front (FN) could pose in the 2017 presidential elections.

In light of all-time lows in popularity for President Hollande, Prime Minister Manuel Valls called on Socialist voters to put their support behind Sarkozy's conservatives on Sunday in a bid to block any gains by the National Front.

The outcome of Sunday's ballot will see the election of 4,108 local councilors.

In the French local election system, two councilors are chosen per constituency, who then vote to decide on 98 presidents of département assemblies. This means that it will not become immediately clear how many departements each party has won.

Both of the main parties have ruled out joining forces with the National Front to chair a departement.

kms/sb (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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