First round of French municipal elections begins
( dpa )- Polling stations throughout France opened early Sunday in the first round of municipal elections, which polls say could deliver a stinging rebuke to President Nicolas Sarkozy .
More than 40 million French voters and European Union citizens living and working in France are eligible to vote in the two rounds of the election, which will elect councillors and mayors in some 36,000 communities throughout the country.
Although a majority of voters have said that they would cast their ballots according to local issues, Sarkozy's unpopularity is certain to play a significant role in the outcome.
The opposition Socialists, who have called on voters to punish Sarkozy with their ballots, are hoping to win back some 30 cities they lost to the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in the 2001 elections.
They are also hoping to gain control of France's four largest cities, Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse.
The Socialist mayors of Paris and Lyon are expected to easily retain their posts, while Socialist challengers look to have even to good chances of ousting the UMP incumbents in Marseille and Toulouse, as well as in the politically important city of Strasbourg.
According to a poll by the BVA institute, made public on Friday, one out of two French voters say that if the UMP lost a number of large cities it would represent a personal defeat for Sarkozy .
And analysts say that if the Socialists score a big win it could complicate Sarkozy's drive to push through ambitious economic and social reforms in the near future.
The president had hoped to turn the election into a referendum on his policies nine months after taking office, but his swift plunge in the polls turned him into such a liability that he declared on Thursday, "I am not a candidate in the municipal elections."
Afraid of being hurt by association, UMP candidates asked him to keep away, and he was forced to cancel campaign appearances in Nice and Marseille and to let his prime minister, Francois Fillon , head the campaign.
Most of the races will not be decided until next Sunday's second round. However, Bordeaux mayor, and former prime minister, Alain Juppe is among several candidates who will likely receive more than 50 per cent of the votes and thereby avoid a run-off.
Polls close at 18:00 pm (1700 GMT) in most localities, but they will remain open an additional two hours in some larger cities.