The Socialist Party headed for an easy victory over conservatives in local elections Sunday, according to exit polls, in the first major indicator of the left's strength since it came to power in June.
The anti-immigration National Front's strength remained stable, which a disappointed deputy party leader Bruno Megret blamed on low turnout. Still, he called his party's showing a "big political victory."The apparent win for the Socialists and their leftist allies is likely to make it easier for them to press ahead with economic, social and political reforms at the national level.
Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said Sunday evening that he was "pretty satisfied" with the results, which were an "encouragement for the government."
The vote came at a promising time for the Socialists. Double-digit inflation has started to fall - albeit slowly - and the economic is improving.
The Socialists and their allies received an estimated 35 percent to 42 percent of the vote, while the two mainstream conservative parties - the Rally for the Republic and the Union for French Democracy - won 29 percent to 35 percent, according to exit polls by the private firms CSA, SOFRES and IPSOS.
The far right National Front won about 16 percent, the polls said.
Those figures meant that the Socialists and their allies looked set to rule 12 to 15 of France's 22 regions, with the conservatives likely to retain eight at the most - way down from the 20 they controlled after the 1992 local elections.
Turnout was sluggish. Only about 60 percent of the country's 38 million eligible voters cast ballots, down 8 percent from the last vote in 1992, according to TF1 television.
Sunday's vote was the start of a two-week process of choosing officials to run the regions as well as 2,000 cantons, subdivisions drawn up in the 18th century.
Voters were picking 1,829 regional counselors in a one-round contest and casting ballots in the first of a two-round race for 2,034 general counselors in the cantons. Presidents of the regions will be chosen Friday.
The losses by mainstream conservatives had been expected following their defeat at the hands of the Socialists in legislative elections last June.
"We are far from the triumph of the left," said Nicolas Sarkozy, the general secretary of the Rally for the Republic.
Struggling to keep their grip on the regions, conservative candidates openly had been tempted to join forces with the National Front, which is often accused of racism and anti-Semitism.
Despite the defeat, Sarkozy repeated that his party would not make alliances with the National Front in order to fight the left's advance.
"When it comes to alliance, we are extremely clear, there will be no alliances," Sarkozy said.