France's anti-immigrant National Front (FN) made strong gains in the first round of local elections on Sunday as President Francois Hollande's Socialists and his allies suffered losses, according to early exit polls.
The elections to thousands of town halls across France are the first nationwide voter test for Hollande, who came to power in May 2012 and has seen his popularity fall to record lows for failing to rein in unemployment.
An exit poll by pollster BVA put Hollande's Socialists and their left-wing allies at 43 percent of the vote, trailing opposition conservatives who scored 48 percent.
The FN scored seven percent of the vote, a high national tally given that it fielded candidates in only 596 out of some 36,000 municipalities.
(Read more: Hollande braces for losses in local vote)
Moreover the National Front won an outright majority in the small northern town and Socialist bastion of Henin-Beaumont. TV exit polls showed it was first-placed in the eastern town of Forbach and the southern towns of Avignon and Beziers.
"The National Front has arrived as a major independent force—a political force both at the national and local level,'' party leader Marine Le Pen told TF1 television.