France stages final election battle ahead of presidential

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France votes Sunday in local elections seen as the last concrete political barometer ahead of next year's presidential ballot, as President Nicolas Sarkozy's popularity plunges and that of the far-right rises.

Voters will choose councillors in half of France's municipalities in the final ballot test ahead of the 2012 presidential election with opinion polls showing the anti-immigration National Front more popular than Sarkozy's right-wing UMP.

Currently the political left controls 58 of France's administrative divisions or "departments", and the right 42. Around 20 are considered swing municipalities in the two-stage election on Sunday and March 27.

An opinion poll this week by Harris Interactive for the first round of the local vote gave 32 percent to the Socialist Party and the Radical Party of the Left, 28 to the right and 15 percent to the National Front, which until now has no councillor seats.

But the vote to choose 2,026 councillors is being seen primarily as a test for Sarkozy as his ruling UMP party battles with Marine Le Pen's National Front for the right-wing vote ahead of the 2012 battle for the presidency.

An opinion poll on Wednesday indicated that Sarkozy would be knocked out in the first round of a presidential election.

Opinion polls put current International Monetary Fund head and Socialist Party member Dominique Strauss-Kahn neck-and-neck with Le Pen, or with the socialist slightly ahead in the presidential.

Sarkozy's Prime Minister Francois Fillon has raised for the first time the possibility of the UMP being entirely absent from a second round presidential vote pitting instead a Socialist candidate against Le Pen.

Such a predicament would be the reverse of the 2002 presidential election contested by the right's Jacques Chirac and Marine Le Pen's father Jean-Marie after Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin's shock elimination in the first round.

With the UMP hit by the much-criticised Sarkozy's personal unpopularity, their objectives are officially modest -- Fillon described the vote as "very local" -- while Le Pen has been vociferous about her favourite subject, immigration.

"My ambition is to show that the National Front is is establishing itself locally," because this election "is also a step towards the big change that the presidential will represent," Le Pen said on Thursday.

The socialists have accused Sarkozy of trying to poach far-right votes, with his Interior Minister Claude Gueant saying this week that: "Thanks to uncontrolled immigration the French sometimes feel that they're no longer in their own home."

The UMP has excluded the possibility of an alliance with the National Front, but has not yet decided on what to advise its supporters to do if the far-right party and the Socialists face each other off in the presidential second round.

The Socialist Party wants the local elections to be about voters punishing Sarkozy and his party for their policies as well as a springboard for the presidential early next year.

The vote can "tell Nicolas Sarkozy that we no longer support the impasse down which he's taking the country, which is an economic and social impasse, but also a great moral crisis," said Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry.

The vote also marks the start of the race towards the Socialists' primaries to decide who will be candidate in 2012.

While polls today say that Strauss-Kahn would be the most popular choice, a big local score for the Socialists would strengthen Aubry's role as opposition leader and therefore as a possible candidate.

© 2011 AFP

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