France elections: Ruling socialists headed for drubbing

French pollsters said the governing Socialists lost ground to the conservative right in municipal elections Sunday that are seen as a referendum on embattled President Francois Hollande and certain to lead to a government shakeup.

Estimates showed the anti-immigration far right adding several towns to its victory bucket after a symbolic win in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont in last week's first round.

The low participation rate, estimated at no more than 62 percent, was expected to break an all-time record.

"It's a defeat firstly for the left. It's a sad evening," government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said.

The only good news for Hollande was solid indications by pollsters that the crown jewel, Paris, would remain in its hands with a win by Anne Hidalgo, 54, for six years deputy of Socialist Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe. She was battling another woman for the French capital, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet from the rival right.

The anti-immigration National Front had a surprisingly strong finish in the first round of voting and pollsters said its candidate in the Cote d'Azur town of Frejus was winning. Extreme-right candidate Robert Menard, former head of Reporters Without Borders, supported by the National Front, won the town of Beziers.

But the far-right National Front lost bids for several key towns, including Avignon, site of the famed theater festival, taken by the Socialists in a major upset for the conservative right. The far-right also lost Perpignan where the companion of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Louis Aliot, was running. The National Front also lost in the small southern town of Saint Gilles, where one of its two deputies, Gilbert Collard, was running.

Hollande's governing Socialists were victorious in 2008 municipal elections but lost a string of mid-sized cities on Sunday, including the Champagne capital of Reims.

The results reflect the president's unpopularity and his failure to cure a lagging economy or fix the unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent.

"It's an even more severe slap (for the Socialists) than in the first round," said former conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe. "There is a powerful of (government) policies." Juppe retained his role as mayor of Bordeaux with an out-right first-round win.

Pollsters estimate that the opposition UMP party can take back control of around 100 city halls.

The National Front used the local elections to try to build a grassroots base - with 1,000 municipal officials in place, to position the party for national voting and European parliamentary elections in May.

But the table turned in Avignon, where the far-right party came top in first-round voting but lost to the Socialists and its allies — helping the left to win by draining votes from the right, which had run the city in the past.

Many in France expect the vote to be followed quickly by a government shake-up in response to the electoral drubbing. Voters nationwide are disillusioned that despite Hollande's 2012 election pledge of "Change, Now," unemployment continues to rise and the economy continues to stagnate.

"I've heard the warning," Hollande said at his Cabinet meeting on Wednesday after poor first-round results. "I will take action."