VOTERS in France went to the polls yesterday in local elections seen as a referendum on embattled President François Hollande’s first two years in office, with the ruling Socialist party braced for heavy loses and the far right poised to win a handful of cities for the first time since 1995.
The National Front aims to build on its surprisingly strong finish in the first round of voting last week. The anti-immigration party made advances across the country amid record-low voter turnout and is poised to make significant gains in the voting for mayors and councillors in 36,000 villages, cities and towns.
The Socialist party, reeling from Mr Hollande’s record-low approval ratings and a string of embarrassing scandals, is expecting a rout that pollsters estimate could see the opposition UMP party take back control of around 100 city halls.
By midday, turnout was only 19.83 per cent, compared with 23.68 per cent at the same point in the second round of voting in the last local elections in 2008, according to interior ministry figures.
Marine Le Pen’s National Front is targeting wins in about ten towns, on top of its first-round victory in blighted northern outpost Henin-Beaumont.
In Avignon, where the far-right party came on top in first-round voting, results are being watched particularly closely. The director of the Avignon Festival, one of the world’s largest theatre festivals, has threatened to relocate if the National Front wins.
Many in France are expecting the vote to be followed quickly by a government shake-up. Voters nationwide are disillusioned that despite Mr Hollande’s 2012 election pledge of “Change, Now,” unemployment continues to rise and the economy continues to stagnate.
“A lot of people are fed up and they don’t know where to look because there are a lot of unfulfilled promises,” said one voter, Marie-Helene Tasseel, outside a polling place in Paris.
One bright spot for Mr Hollande is the capital, where Anne Hidalgo is favourite to defeat rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and keep Paris in Socialist control for another six-year term. Ms Hidalgo, 54, has served for 13 years as deputy to outgoing Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, and her Socialists are very likely to be ahead in some of the most populated neighbourhoods.
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.
Despite the election losses, Mr Hollande’s government has said it will stick with reforms and spending cuts, including a plan to phase out €30 billion (£25bn) in payroll tax on firms 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 per cent of gross domestic product.