France vote bolsters Le Pen's far-right National Front

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Marine Le Pen appears to be wooing some voters away from the UMP

The far-right National Front (FN) has gained ground in French local elections, with preliminary results suggesting the UMP party of President Nicolas Sarkozy has fared badly.

The opposition Socialists have a strong lead after the first round of the cantonal elections, on 25%.

But the FN surged to about 15% in Sunday's vote, just behind the centre-right UMP, which has about 17% so far.

It is a test of opinion ahead of next year's presidential election.

French TF1 television said turnout hit a record low, with 55.6% of the electorate choosing not to vote.

The FN is thought to have qualified for run-off votes in nearly 400 cantons - France's smallest administrative units - next weekend. In most of those areas the FN will be in a duel with the Socialists.

Earlier this month, two opinion polls predicted that in next year's presidential election, Mr Sarkozy could be knocked into third place by the FN leader, Marine Le Pen.

In January she took over the party leadership from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned France by reaching the second round of the presidential election in 2002.

Marine Le Pen said Sunday's results showed that "this is no longer solely a protest vote".

Her deputy Louis Aliot said the support for the FN indicated a trend and "if this continues, the Front will replace the right [UMP]".

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