PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande's Socialists braced for losses in hundreds of towns and villages in mayoral elections on Sunday, with far-right National Front candidates seen winning a handful of cities for the first time since 1995.
The runoff round of voting comes at the end of a week that saw French unemployment surge to a new record, making a reverse of first round losses unlikely and a cabinet reshuffle by Hollande possible as soon as Monday.
Some 80 percent of the French want him to dismiss Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, according to a recent Harris Interactive poll, and ambitious and tough-talking Interior Minister Manuel Valls comes top of their favourites for the job.
"I can't see how (Ayrault) could stay, unless we save about thirty towns, something nobody really believes," a Socialist Party source said.
Dissatisfaction with Hollande's rule and a string of legal intrigues involving opposition conservatives are seen hitting turnout and helping the anti-immigrant FN win in the depressed post-industrial north and in southern towns such as Beziers.
Pollsters identify half a dozen FN-run towns emerging after the vote, giving the party a chance to try exercising power two decades after its attempts to run four southern towns it won in 1995 and 1997 revealed its lack of competence.
The FN's made a striking breakthrough last Sunday by winning power outright in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, a former coal-mining centre with unemployment now around 18 percent.
PARIS LEFT, MARSEILLE RIGHT
Polls show the Socialists are favourite to hang on to Paris, where the gaffe-prone efforts of the conservative candidate to lure so-called "bobo" (bourgeois-bohemian) voters have been widely derided on social media.
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet came first in last week's first round, but Parisians vote for separate lists in each of the city's 20 arrondissements and the Socialists look set to have a majority in the city council when it picks the next mayor.
In Marseille, right-wing incumbent Jean-Claude Gaudin, who has transformed France's second city with new seafront museums, a tramway and a pedestrianised old harbour area, looked set to win a fourth term after his Socialist rival came in third in the first round, trailing the FN candidate.
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 ($41 billion) in payroll tax on companies in exchange for hiring more workers.
A government source said Paris was also preparing tax breaks for households, which would raise new 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.
(Additional reporting by Julien Ponthus and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Tom Heneghan)