Sarkozy feels the heat from Le Pen in local polls
Jean Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front closed the gap on French President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives in yesterday's local elections.
With 86pc of votes counted, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the president's centre-right supporters had won 32.5pc of the vote, with left-wing parties totalling 48 percent and Le Pen's anti-immigrant party polling15pc.
However, polling institutes said Sarkozy's own UMP party scored just 16pc, barely ahead of the National Front.
The opposition Socialist party won about 25 percent with the hardline Left Front on 9pc, ecologists on 8pc and unaffiliated left-wing candidates with another 6pc.
"This may be the best result we have ever recorded in cantonal elections, which are not traditionally favourable to the National Front," Le Pen said on France 2 television.
The vote showed people were turning their backs on decades of look-alike policies of centre-right and centre-left governments that had driven France into economic and social decline, she said.
The local elections, the last popular vote before next year's presidential election in which Sarkozy is expected to seek a second five-year term, confirmed Le Pen's breakthrough to stand neck-and-neck with other likely mainstream contenders.
The decisive second round of the departmental elections for some 2,000 local councillors will be held next Sunday.
Because the voting system favours alliances, the National Front is unlikely to win many seats since UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope reaffirmed that the mainstream conservatives would not back any far-right candidate.
Turnout in the first round was a record low of 45pc. One of the most unpopular presidents in recent history, Sarkozy has trailed rivals in opinion polls for months bu has now fallen behind Le Pen in three surveys.