French voters sent President Francois Hollande and his ruling Socialist party a message in the first round of local elections Sunday, handing key wins to the country's far-right National Front (FN) party.
Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant firebrand who leads FN, cheered the early exit poll results as a watershed moment for the conservative movement in France.
"The National Front has arrived as a major independent force — a political force both at the national and local level," Le Pen told the TF1 television channel.
Exit poll results broadcast on national TV showed the FN made significant gains in a number of towns. It won handily in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont and placed first in the eastern town of Forbach and the southern towns of Avignon and Beziers.
Run-offs are slated to be held next Sunday.
The elections marked the first nationwide voter test for Hollande, who won the presidency in May 2012 but has seen his popularity slip to record lows in recent months amid a sluggish economy and dire unemployment levels.
Le Pen — who placed a strong third in the 2012 presidential contest — has been credited with thrusting the FN into the mainstream of French politics.