Early results from yesterday's local elections in France showed voters split almost evenly between mainstream left and right, with the extreme- right National Front fielding a record 25,000 candidates and improving on its showing in the last local elections in 1989.
Turn-out, at less than 70 per cent, was sharply down, both on the presidential election, and the last municipal elections six years ago, something that is attributed to voter fatigue in a year whose first four months were dominated by campaigning for the presidency.
Among prominent contenders elected yesterday were the prime minister, Alain Juppe, who was elected mayor of Bordeaux, and the former prime minister and defeated presidential candidate, Edouard Balladur, who was elected mayor of his 15th district of Paris.
Elsewhere, however, some of the best known candidates - former president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing in Clermont Ferrand, and Raymond Barre in Lyons - failed to gain outright majorities and must await the results of next Sunday's second round.
The second round will also determine how far the National Front can translate its first-round success into council seats. In most places where it has qualified for the run-off by winning more than 10 per cent of the vote, it will face a mainstream candidate from the right, as well as a Socialist.
The front's best chance of coming close to power is in the Riviera city of Nice, where a former National Front organiser, Jacques Peyrat, stands a chance of becoming mayor, against opposition from the official National Front candidate, as well as mainstream right and left.
Although the elections, for mayors and local counsellors, were widely seen as a test of the political climate after Mr Chirac's first month in office, they were fought mainly on local issues, and the record of outgoing councils on concerns such as housing, investment in jobs and services, and honest government.
Mayors with local roots who were judged to have served their town or city well, like the Socialist mayor of Strasbourg, Catherine Trautmann, were reelected with increased majorities, against the national trend to the right shown in the presidential elections.
The adverse effect of local corruption scandals on a candidate's chances was less marked than had been forecast. Grenoble, Lyons and Cannes all registered unexpectedly strong showings by mayors implicated in corruption cases, or their successors from the same party.
While Mr Juppe won Bordeaux without having to compete in a second round, and 23 of the 40 government ministers standing for office also won, there emerged a marked disinclination among voters to support non-local candidates 'parachuted' in to a supposedly safe seat. Elisabeth Hubert, the health minister, was roundly defeated by the incumbent mayor of Nantes, while in Cannes in the south, a close ally of President Chirac came a poor third to the incumbent right-wing mayor who is appealing against a conviction for corruption.
The leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, pronounced himself well-pleased with his party's results, but although the front's performance overall was 1.5 per cent higher than its 5.1 per cent showing six years ago, it was weaker than in the presidential election and seemed patchy, even though it fielded a record 25,000 candidates.
However, in Mulhouse, the National Front increased to 30 per cent its record 27 per cent score in the presidential election, but came second to the Socialist Party
In Strasbourg, the front gained only half the support it had in the presidential elections, while in the port city of Le Havre, where there was a racist murder only two weeks ago, it almost doubled its score to 20 per cent.