PARIS (AP) — Voters across France are casting ballots in the first round of municipal elections Sunday as two female candidates compete to run Paris City Hall and far right candidates are hoping for a strong showing.
The voting 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 election is the first since President Francois Hollande took office in 2012, and voters could punish his Socialist party for failing to cure France's ailing economy and lower the 10 percent jobless rate.
Marine Le Pen's anti-immigrant, far right National Front party is aiming to use the municipal vote to build a grassroots base, while scandals surrounding former President Nicolas Sarkozy, considering a political comeback, may dent his conservative right's clout.
The French capital, where Socialist Anne Hidalgo and conservative longshot Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet are vying, and conservative-run Marseille are the coveted cities for both sides.
But a top challenge for mainstream parties also lies in the 596 towns where the far-right National Front is competing, and hoping to install 1,000 local officials. Those would be the first threads of a grassroots web crucial in national elections, and European parliamentary voting in May.
The National Front fears that Islamic culture will dominate French civilization if Muslim immigration isn't halted, and opposes globalization and the European Union as infringements on French sovereignty. Le Pen has worked to clean up the National Front's racist image since taking over in 2011 from her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Last week, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged voters to "do everything" to prevent National Front wins. The party would play a decisive role in the March 30 final round in dozens of towns where it's expected to get at least 10 percent of the first-round vote — the condition for remaining in the race.