French voters go to the polls for the decisive round of local elections on Sunday with the Socialist government reeling from a poor first round score, and Marine Le Pen’s populist Front National (FN) vowing to win control of several towns.
The anti-immigration, anti-EU party came top in more than 20 last Sunday, with unemployment high and the economy sluggish.
With turnout at a record low of just over 60 percent, President Hollande’s Socialist Party won just 38 percent of the national vote, behind 47 percent for the opposition conservatives.
The socialists are desperate to hold onto Paris. The mainstream right candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet emerged top last week but the Socialists’ Anne Hidalgo remains favourite.
However a long list of towns held by the left could swing to the centre-right UMP.
“If the left suffers a big setback, if it also loses symbolic cities such as Toulouse and Strasbourg… If a surprise occurs in Paris even if that seems unlikely, François Hollande will have to act. Does that mean a change of prime minister? No-one can say right now,” said Frédéric Dabi, Assistant Director-General at pollsters Ifop France.
Even though the governing Socialists tried to campaign on local issues, for Hollande the first round brought a stinging rebuke.
There was more bad news for the president in midweek, with the announcement that the number of people out of work in France surged in February by 31,500 to a new record.
The president has said the government must “learn the lesson”; there is talk of possible tax cuts, as well as speculation that Hollande will reshuffle his government and possibly eject Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
Despite the election losses, Hollande’s government has said it will stick with economic reforms and spending cuts, including a plan to phase out 30 billion euros in payroll tax on companies in exchange for hiring more workers.