Crunch test for France's Socialists in local polls

France holds municipal elections this weekend with the Socialist government battling record unpopularity, the main opposition beset by scandal and the far right tipped to make a strong, possibly spectacular, showing.

Sunday's contest is the first nationwide vote since Socialist leader Francois Hollande was elected as president two years ago.

It comes at a time when the centre-right UMP has been hit by a corruption probe as well as graft and other scandals allegedly involving former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen is meanwhile on the rise. The far-right party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is fielding a record number of candidates in this election and polls suggest it could take an average of close to 30 percent of the votes cast in municipalities where it is due to present a list of candidates in Sunday's first round of voting.

A run-off system under which the two biggest parties go forward to a second round means a strong first round showing will not necessarily translate into the FN securing control of many local authorities and the far right party is only contesting around one in five municipalities.

But an outcome on the lines indicated by the most recent polls would nevertheless send shockwaves through French politics.

Hollande, who failed to keep his electoral pledge to rein in record joblessness by the end of last year, is the most unpopular president in recent French history.

His government has been hit by a phone tap scandal targeting Sarkozy and a reshuffle is widely expected after the elections.

Some 30 percent of voters have indicated they intend to punish the government for its perceived failures on key issues such as jobs, although experts play down the likely impact of recent scandals.

"Local matters heavily influence voting intentions," said Bernard Sananes from the CSA polling institute.

A recent survey by Ifop agency backed that up with 87 percent of those polled saying they did not think that the ongoing scandals would affect the way they voted.

- 'France is falling apart' -

Le Pen, who gained 17.9 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, has urged voters to reject candidates from a "system that is taking French political life down the gutter."

Le Pen believes that France has lost its sovereignty to the European Union and wants to see an end to open borders across the continent and laws being made in Brussels for EU member states.

Her anti-immigration and Eurosceptic views are shared by large numbers of French voters, many of whom have been hit hard by economic austerity measures that are seen as coming from Brussels.

"The social fabric is being rent and the administration is falling apart," said Michel Guiniot, the head of the FN in the department of Oise, north of Paris.

"I am not at all happy with this situation but we have been warning of all this for years," he said.

Ironically, the FN's high standing in the polls is expected to help the Socialists reduce their losses. By splitting the vote on the right, Le Pen's party will make it easier for the Socialists to get into more second rounds, and, in the event of run-offs against the FN, to win them.

In Paris, under the control of Socialists for 13 years, there is a historic tussle between two women candidates.

The current Socialist mayor's deputy Anne Hidalgo is fighting a challenge from the UMP's Nathalie Kosciuscko-Morizet.

Polls have shown the UMP and Socialists neck-and-neck in the first round but Hidalgo is expected to edge the second round.