World Bulletin/News Desk
France's ruling Socialists braced for big losses in local elections on Sunday and the far-right National Front was poised to win a handful of cities for the first time since 1995, as turnout looked set to hit a new low.
The runoff round of voting comes at the end of a week that saw French unemployment surge to a new record, making a reverse of first-round losses by the Socialists unlikely and a cabinet reshuffle by President Francois Hollande possible as soon as Monday.
Some 80 percent of the French want him to dismiss Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, according to a Harris Interactive poll this week, and ambitious and tough-talking Interior Minister Manuel Valls is their favourite to replace him.
"I can't see how (Ayrault) could stay, unless we save about 30 towns, something nobody really believes," a Socialist Party source said.
The Interior Ministry said 52.36 percent of eligible voters had gone to the polls by 1500 GMT, over 2 points lower than by the same time in the last municipal elections in 2008.
"It looks like a new abstention record will be set, it's not good news," Bernard Sananes, head of the CSA polling institute told BFM-TV, although the move to summer time, with clocks going forward an hour, meant the rate should be treated with caution.
An Ifop-SAS poll predicted a final turnout of 61.5 percent.
Final turnout last Sunday was 63.5 percent - considered low in a country with a strong attachment to its mayors, who wield considerable local power.
Most polling stations will close at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) although some in big cities will remain open two hours longer.
Dissatisfaction with Hollande's tenure and a string of legal intrigues involving opposition conservatives were expected to dampen turnout. Next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2017.
The streets of Paris were quiet on Sunday morning near the old stock exchange building in the centre, without the queues at polling stations typically seen on an election day.
"I'm scandalised by these imbeciles who don't vote," Yann Dedet, a 67-year-old cinema producer, told Reuters after casting his ballot "for the left, of course".
A high abstention rate was expected to help the anti-immigrant FN win in the depressed post-industrial north and in southern towns such as Beziers or Frejus.
NATIONAL FRONT BREAKTHROUGH
Pollsters identify half a dozen FN-run towns emerging after the vote, giving the party a chance to try exercising power once more. Its attempts to run four southern towns it won in 1995 and 1997 revealed a lack of competence.
The FN made a striking breakthrough last Sunday by winning power outright in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, a former coal-mining centre with unemployment now around 18 percent.
The new FN mayor, 41-year-old Steeve Briois, was officially given the traditional tricolour sash during the first town council on Sunday, to applause from his supporters.
"Change was necessary," he said in the town council chamber, packed with journalists. The outgoing Socialist mayor, Eugene Binaisse, said: "We are officially entering the resistance. Henin-Beaumont is not a lab, its people are not guinea pigs."
Polls showed the Socialists were favourites to hang on to Paris, where the gaffe-prone efforts of the conservative UMP candidate to lure so-called "bobo" (bourgeois-bohemian) voters were widely derided on social media.
The UMP's Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet topped the popular vote in the first round, but Parisians vote for separate lists in each of the city's 20 arrondissements and the Socialists looked set to have a majority of councillors who will pick the next mayor.
In Marseille, right-wing incumbent Jean-Claude Gaudin, who has transformed France's second city with new seafront museums, a tramway and a pedestrianised old harbour area, looked on the verge of winning a fourth term after his Socialist rival came in third in the first round, trailing the FN candidate.
Despite the election losses, Hollande's government has said it will stick with economic reforms and spending cuts, including a plan to phase out 30 billion euros ($41 billion) in payroll tax on companies in exchange for hiring more workers.
A government source said Paris was also preparing tax breaks for households, which would raise new questions over whether France can fulfil a promise of bringing its public deficit down below the European Union target of 3 percent of gross domestic product.Last Mod: 30 Mart 2014, 18:45