VOTERS in France head to the polls for the the second round of the 2014 municipal elections on Sunday, with rather more than the future shape of local councils at stake.
The elections, although local, have been presented by the right as a referendum on the Socialists and President François Hollande, who has the lowest approval ratings of any president in French history.
Turnout in last Sunday's first round was low, with 38.72% of those eligible staying away from polling stations, a record for French municipal elections.
Both the UMP and far-right Front National enjoyed successful nights at the expense of Mr Hollande’s Socialists.
The UMP and its allies won 47% of the overall vote, nine points more than the Socialists, in last Sunday's first round, while the far-right Front National enters this weekend’s vote with high hopes of taking control of several councils after picking up 5% of the vote - much higher than the 0.9% it recorded in the first round back in 2008.
Last weekend, Front National candidate Steeve Briois won the mayoral race outright in the northwest town of Hénin-Beaumont in the Pas-de-Calais department, with 50.26% of the vote. The party comes into this weekend’s ballot in a strong position in several key towns and cities for the second round, including Avignon, Fréjus, Beziers and Perpignan.
The FN’s success prompted under-pressure Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to call for voters, particularly those who have abstained from voting on Sunday, to vote against the Front National this weekend.
In Paris, meanwhile, UMP candidate Natalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former Sarkozy-era minister, has a slight lead over deputy mayor and Socialist Anne Hidalgo in the race to become the first female mayor of Paris - although Ms Hidalgo is a pre-poll favourite to win the ballot.
Following Sunday’s electoral battering, many of Mr Hollande’s opponents called for a government reshuffle. UMP leader Jean-François Copé called on the President to explain “who will be the next prime minister” before the second round. He also predicted a “big victory” for his party in the second round.
But he also said: “It's important for those who voted for the Front National to mark their anger and exasperation with the Left to vote for UMP candidates in the second round."
Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius hinted on Thursday that a reshuffle could be on the cards - but said any changes would not take place before the vote. He said: “François Hollande heard the warning, everyone heard it.
"He will take action after the second round, but I'd be very surprised if we take any major decisions before the second round.”