Paris - France's anti-immigrant National Front were set to win a record number of town halls as early results showed a rout for President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialists in local elections on Sunday.
The mainstream right also made gains.
Partial tallies and exit polls showed the anti-EU party of Marine Le Pen on track to secure power in 10 town halls around the country, easily surpassing its past record in the 1990s when it ruled in four towns.
The Socialist losses, if confirmed, will raise speculation of a cabinet reshuffle as early as Monday as Hollande, the most unpopular leader in France's 56-year-old Fifth Republic, seeks to turn around the euro zone's second-largest economy.
An exit poll by survey group BVA showed his allies winning just 42 percent of the popular vote against 49 percent for the French right - a result which BVA forecast would translate into a swing of over 100 large towns to conservative rule.
“Clearly we are entering a new phase, the duopoly of French politics has been broken and we must reckon with a third force,” Le Pen said, referring to the fact Socialists and mainstream conservatives have long dominated French politics.
Final results showed the FN won the towns of Beziers, Le Pontet, Frejus, Beaucaire, Le Luc, Camaret-sur-Aigues and Cogolin in the south, and Villers-Cotteret and Hayange in the north. It already made a breakthrough in last week's first round by winning power in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont.
In some consolation for Hollande, Socialists looked likely to retain control of Paris city hall, with their candidate Anne Hidalgo due to become the first female mayor there.
But they were set to cede power in cities such as Toulouse, Angers and Quimper, exit polls showed, while the conservative UMP saw off a challenge to its rule in the port of Marseille, although the FN won in the city's seventh district.
“This is the price of the brave reforms that have been undertaken,” Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said of pension reforms and tax hikes brought in by Hollande in a bid to narrow France's public deficit.
“We cannot, and we shall not, remain deaf to the message the French have sent us,” he told national television.
“There have been huge losses, a drubbing, for the candidates backed by the government,” said Alain Juppe, the conservative mayor in the south-west city of Bordeaux who already won a new mandate in last week's first round.
But the FN failed to win the southern town of Avignon as it hoped, and was unlikely to secure the eastern town of Forbach, another of its key targets.
Sunday's runoff round of voting came after a week that saw French unemployment surge to a new record. A record 38.5 percent of voters chose to abstain, a fact pollsters said played into the hands of the FN.
About 80 percent of the French want him to dismiss Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, according to a Harris Interactive poll this week, and ambitious and tough-talking Interior Minister Manuel Valls is their favourite to replace him. Veteran Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is also seen a contender.
Pollsters had identified half a dozen FN-run towns emerging after the vote, giving the party a chance to try exercising power once more. Its attempts to run the three southern towns it won in 1995 and a fourth it won in a 1997 by-election backfired as it showed a lack of competence in power.
Despite the election losses, Hollande's government has said it will stick with economic reforms and spending cuts, including a plan to phase out 30 billion euros in payroll tax on companies in exchange for hiring more workers.
A government source said Paris was preparing tax breaks for households, which would raise questions over whether France can fulfil a promise of bringing its public deficit down below the European Union target of three percent of gross domestic product. - Reuters