France's ruling Socialist Party suffered humiliating losses Sunday in local elections marked by breakthrough successes for the far-right National Front and the first woman mayor of Paris.
On a day dubbed "black Sunday" by one Socialist politician, the National Front won control of at least 14 towns and was on track to claim 1,200 municipal council seats nationwide, its best ever showing in local politics.
It has been a black Sunday
There was a strong showing for the main opposition, the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement, known by its French initials as the UMP, which won a string of towns and cities, including some once considered bastions of the left.
In a rare consolation the Socialists held Paris, where their candidiate Anne Hidalgo became the first woman to win the city's mayoral election.
Hidalgo defeated conservative candidate, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
But in total, President Francois Hollande's party was predicted to lose up to 50 cities to the mainstream right. Limoges, a town that had been run by the left for 102 years, fell to the UMP, as did Toulouse, the Champagne capital Reims and Saint Etienne and dozens of other smaller towns.
"It has been a black Sunday," said the Socialist deputy, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis.
Candidates backed by Marine Le Pen's National Front secured the mayor's seat in the mid-sized southern towns of Beziers and Frejus and other towns, adding to its first-round victory in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont.
The interior minister, Manuel Valls, said preliminary results showed the Le Pen's party would take control of at least 14 towns of more than 9,000 residents.
"We have moved onto a new level," Le Pen says. "There is now a third major political force in our country."
However, the city of Avignon, where the National Front headed the first round of voting, remained under left-wing control. Le Pen's party also failed to win Forbach and Perpignan, cities of which had been among their top objectives.
The National Front, whose former leader, Jean Marie Le Pen, once described the Holocaust as a "detail" of the Second World War, has attempted to soften its image to appeal to mainstream voters. It however retains a strong anti-immigration stance and claims that France's large Muslim population is "Islamicising" the nation.
An OpinionWay poll for Le Figaro newspaper suggested the UMP and its allies had taken 45 percent of votes cast, while the Socialists and other left-wing parties took 43 percent. The National Front, which was only standing in a small number of communes, registered 7 percent.
The Socialists were not helped by a turnout estimated at about 62 percent, which is low by French local election standards and was largely explained by large numbers of left-leaning voters staying at home.
"We have had a very severe warning," said Segolene Royal, a former presidential candidate for the Socialist party.