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Victory for France's conservatives in local elections

France's conservative UMP was the big winner in the second round of the country's local elections. The governing Socialists suffered huge losses, while the right-wing National Front also came off worse than expected.

Ahead of the fast-approaching 2017 presidential election, exit polls Sunday evening indicated a huge triumph for former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who announced his return to politics last September. The conservative UMP will take over 66 to 70 of France's 101 departements, up from 41.

For current President Hollande, however, the second round of local elections was a huge blow to his Socialists who lost approximately half of their previously held 61 departements.

"The French people have massively rejected the policies of Francois Hollande and his government," Sarkozy told UMP supporters on Sunday.

"The time for change is now," he added.

Far-right threat?

This round of voting drew in the interest of France's major parties - the ruling Socialists and the UMP - as they tried to

gauge the threat Marine Le Pen's

anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front (FN) could pose in the 2017 presidential elections.

Despite 62 of its candidates being elected, however, the far-right FN was also left disappointed on Sunday. Although the (FN) managed to increase massively on its previous one elected councilor, the party still only holds less than 2 percent of France's 4,108 council seats, meaning that they will be unable to control any of the country's departements.

Turnout down

In the French local election system, two councilors are chosen per constituency, who then vote to decide on 98 presidents of departement assemblies. Therefore it is not immediately clear how many departements each party has won.

Both the UMP and the Socialists have ruled out joining forces with Le Pen's National Front to chair a departement.

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 in the

first round

last week.

ksb/bw (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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