French government braces for poll slap, FN surge

France's ruling Socialists were braced Sunday for a stinging setback in local elections set to be marked by a breakthrough for the far-right and the election of the first female mayor of Paris.

A record low turnout was expected to exacerbate the Socialists' losses in their first nationwide electoral test since Francois Hollande was elected president in 2012.

Hollande reportedly plans to respond to the long-anticipated drubbing by ordering a reshuffle of his beleaguered government in which popular Interior Minister Manuel Valls is tipped to replace current Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

An all-female contest in Paris guaranteed that a woman will become mayor of the French capital for the first time; the Socialists' Anne Hidalgo battling former government minister Nathalie Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.

It also looked set to be a landmark vote for the far-right National Front (FN), which is poised to win control of up to a dozen mid-sized towns.

The first indicative results were expected when ballots in metropolitan France close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT). Indications at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) were that the turnout would be low by French standards, increasing the likelihood of the Socialists taking a severe beating.

That was not good news for Hidalgo, who was hoping to resist the national swing against her party and keep Paris in the hands of the left.

Hidalgo, a deputy to current mayor Bertrand Delanoe, went into the election as a slight favourite. But her rival, universally known by her initials NKM, did sufficiently well in the first round to suggest she could edge the contest to join a very small club of women who have run major cities around the world.

The FN's strong first-round performance was widely interpreted as reflecting exasperation among voters with the Hollande government.

The Socialists' failure to get a stagnant economy moving and reverse the upward march of unemployment is seen as having aggravated some voters' anger over other issues, such as crime and immigration, and increased disillusionment with mainstream politicians of all stripes.

Ayrault is widely expected to be made the principal scapegoat for the government's failures and Valls, a dapper and tough-talking character who has broad appeal across the political spectrum, is the favourite to replace him.

- Soap opera drama -

Adding a bit of soap opera drama to proceedings is the fact that Hollande's former partner, Segolene Royal, is poised to make a comeback following the president's separation from girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler in January, which left him a free man, politically and personally.

Trierweiler, who was dumped after it emerged Hollande was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet, had reportedly wielded a veto over Royal's mooted inclusion in Hollande's first cabinet.

Royal, the mother of Hollande's four children and a party heavyweight in her own right, is being tipped to get a major new portfolio spanning education, science and youth.

The FN meanwhile was looking to build on its better-than-expected first round showing, which included winning the mayor's seat in Henin-Beaumont in northern France at the first attempt with just over 50 percent of the vote.

Party leader Marine Le Pen is hoping to see FN-backed mayors installed in at least another dozen towns, most of them in the south but also including Forbach, a depressed rustbelt town in the northeastern Moselle region.

Voters there indicated that problems of crime and juvenile delinquency often blamed on the north African immigrant community were helping the cause of FN candidate Florian Philippot.

But not all of them believed a turn to the far right was either inevitable or desirable.

"It is true that after a certain time of the evening, I never go out anymore because of the gangs of youths hanging around in the streets," said Renne Zedda, a resident of the town's Wiesberg neighbourhood.

"But if the FN gets in, we are going to have some serious problems here."

Mohamed Aithsaine, who runs a Moroccan organisation in the neighbourhood, added: "Everything is not rosy but it is not the Bronx either. Throwing oil on the fire is not going to help."

The FN has controlled a handful of local authorities in the past but does not have a good track record for administrative competence.

Le Pen, who has made strenuous efforts to forge a new, more respectable image for the party founded by her father Jean-Marie, is looking to establish a local base that will allow the FN to prove it is more than a protest movement.

Le Pen, who took over the FN leadership in 2011, has been credited with broadening the appeal of a party regarded as taboo by many voters in light of her father's repeated convictions for Holocaust denial and inciting racial hatred.

The best-known city that could fall to the FN is Avignon, famed for its annual international arts festival, which organisers say will be pulled out if Le Pen's party takes over.