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French local elections a test for unpopular Hollande, conservative rivals _ and far right

Voters across France are casting ballots in the first round of municipal elections as two female candidates compete to run Paris City Hall and far right candidates are hoping for a strong showing.

The two rounds of voting, which began Sunday, is taking place in 36,000 French villages, cities and towns for mayors and municipal counselors. It will test the resiliency of France's governing Socialists, who swept to victory six years ago.

The anti-immigrant far right party of Marine Le Pen is aiming to use the municipal vote to build a grassroots base, while the Socialist party of unpopular President Francois Hollande could be punished for failing to cure France's ailing economy. But scandals surrounding former President Nicolas Sarkozy, considering a political comeback, may dent his conservative right's clout.