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.
There was some solace for the Socialists as a TNS Sofres exit poll showed their candidate for Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, well ahead of her conservative rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
Other polls showed a slight lead in votes for Kosciusko-Morizet, but the mayor is chosen by the city council and analysts say the power balance there favours the Socialists.
Run-off voting will be held next Sunday.
Even before exit polls came out for Paris and France's other major cities, Hollande allies acknowledged there was a risk they would see losses.
"We are in the midst of getting the country back on its feet - things are not easy,'' Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said.
Voter turnout was estimated at around the 66.5 percent level of the last local elections in 2008 - already the lowest in France's 56-year-old Fifth Republic.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault this week pressed the opposition UMP to urge its voters to back Socialist candidates in towns where it stood no chance, promising that the Socialists would do the same in a joint effort to keep out the FN.
Heavy losses for Hollande's party could trigger a re-shuffle of his cabinet and encourage backbench attacks on a raft of new pro-business policies on which Hollande has called a vote of confidence in coming weeks.
Pollsters have identified half a dozen towns that might be governed by the FN after next Sunday's run-offs, giving the party a chance to show it can be trusted with power after attempts to run four towns in the late 1990s revealed its lack of competence.
Le Pen, who took control of the party in 2011, has sought to give the National Front a softer image than it had under her father Jean-Marie, notably by sanctioning or ejecting members found to have made racist comments.
"The National Front is much less repulsive than it has been in recent years,'' said Jean-Daniel Levy, an analyst with pollster Harris Interactive. "Voters are not looking for the most competent candidate, but the one who shares their feelings about the state of French society.''
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