Far-right leads polls heading into French vote
France holds local elections on Sunday that are likely to see big losses for the ruling Socialists, following a campaign dominated by the far-right National Front.
The traditional parties have grown increasingly nervous about the threat from the anti-immigration, anti-EU National Front (FN) led by Marine Le Pen, that has soared to the top of the opinion polls in recent months.
The FN took first place in European elections and control of 11 town halls last year.
It is now riding high at around 30 percent in the polls, according to recent surveys.
It has benefited from a slump in the economy, double-digit unemployment, and a more general loss of trust in the political establishment that has seen approval ratings for Socialist President Francois Hollande plumb record lows.
Despite a boost for the president in the immediate aftermath of the January 7-9 attacks in Paris, where he was seen as statesman-like and decisive, he appears to have failed to capitalise as the economy continues its slow decline.
This weekend, voters will be choosing representatives for 101 "departments" -- another layer in France's complex governing system -- that control issues such as school and welfare budgets.
In a new initiative, parties this year had to present a male-female double ticket to break the male dominance on local councils.
The ruling Socialists and their left-wing allies are expected to take the biggest hit, losing around half the 61 departments they currently hold.
But the FN is not just stealing votes from the Socialists, but also from the conservative UMP, which has struggled to rally behind a single leader since Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidency in 2012.
Sarkozy returned to frontline politics last year, becoming leader of the party, but faces an array of challengers from within his own ranks as he prepares for a widely expected run for the presidency in two years.
But despite being less popular than the FN, Sarkozy's party will probably make the most gains, since Socialist voters are expected to support them in second-round run-offs just to keep the far-right out of power -- a possible foretaste of the presidential election in 2017.
- 'Invade the Elysee' -
The FN is therefore aiming to win between one and four departments at most, while Sarkozy has predicted a "wave" of departments falling to his UMP party.
That would still work in Le Pen's favour, bolstering her claims that the mainstream parties are two sides of the same coin that are ganging up against her party.
She has batted away persistent accusations that the FN is "fascist" for its hard line on immigration, confident that her policies play well with a large cross-section of voters who feel left behind by rapid social changes.
She was pointedly not invited to the millions-strong march that followed the January jihadist attacks in Paris, but that only reinforced her image as a political outsider.
"In a few months, we'll get stuck into the regions and then we're off to invade the Elysee (presidential palace)," Le Pen said recently, in reference to regional elections at the end of the year.
Still, the FN's rise worries many social liberals.
They fear that Le Pen's efforts to "de-toxify" the party's image since she took over from her father in 2011 is little more than clever marketing that masks continued racism and anti-Semitism from its past.
In a bid to boost turnout -- which is expected to be very low -- Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said he is "scared" of the FN and has warned Le Pen could be president in 2017.
However, some analysts have cast doubt on whether this is the best move.
"It put the FN at the centre of the game," said Brice Teinturier, from polling institute Ipsos.
© 2015 AFP