PARIS: Early turnout was low in French local elections on Sunday, threatening to hit the ruling Socialist party with potentially heavy mid-term losses and provide the far-right National Front with gains.
The Interior Ministry said turnout for mayoral votes in towns and villages was 23.16 percent by midday, around the same as the first round of town hall elections in 2008. That election ended up with a final turnout of 66.5 percent, the lowest level since 1959.
Dissatisfaction with President Francois Hollande's rule - his approval rate is at record lows of 19 percent in opinion polls - and a string of legal issues involving opposition conservatives are seen helping the anti-immigrant Front (FN), which hopes to win outright in a record number of towns.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault this week called on the opposition conservative UMP party to urge its voters to back Socialist candidates in towns where it stood no chance of election, promising the Socialists would do the same in a joint effort to keep out the FN out.
One Hollande aide has forecast final turnout of around 55 percent, about 10 points lower than normal, while recent polls have pegged it at around 60 percent.
"We are roughly around the same levels as in 2008 which had seen a record abstention rate," Yves-Marie Cann from the CSA polling institute told BFM-TV.
He blamed the "challenging economic climate" and the various legal issues facing conservatives.
Polls will generally close at 6 pm (1700 GMT) although voting stations in big cities will remain open two hours longer.
Hollande voted in his former electoral fief of Tulle, in southwestern France, while FN leader Marine Le Pen cast her ballot in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, which has been a Socialist bastion for years.
The election, opened to France's 44.5 million registered voters, is the first mid-term test for Hollande since he won the presidency in May 2012.
Heavy losses for Hollande's Socialists could trigger a re-shuffle of the unpopular cabinet amid high unemployment and a sluggish economy and encourage backbench attacks of new pro-business policies on which Hollande has called a mid-year vote of confidence in his government.
Polls show the Socialists are favourite to hang on to Paris where the gaffe-prone efforts of the conservative candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet to lure so-called "bobo" (bourgeois-bohemian) voters have been widely derided on social media.
But the right-wing incumbent in Marseille, the UMP's Jean-Claude Gaudin, looks set to win a new term in France's second city as rival Socialist candidate Patrick Mennucci suffers from his links to an unpopular government.
The emergence under Marine Le Pen of the National Front as France's third political force adds unpredictability with many of the March 30 run-offs set to be three-way contests.