* Hollande allies trail conservatives, exit polls show
* FN wins Socialist bastion, leads in Avignon, Perpignan
* Second round run-offs due next Sunday
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By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, March 23 France's anti-immigrant National
Front (FN) scored gains in first-round town hall elections on
Sunday and took control of a former Socialist bastion as voters
punished President Francois Hollande and his left-wing allies.
The elections in thousands of constituencies across France
were the first nationwide voter test for Hollande, who came to
power in May 2012 and has seen his popularity slump to record
lows for failing to rein in unemployment.
A second round of voting is due next Sunday but FN leader
Marine Le Pen, who has softened the party's image since taking
over from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011, said advances
made in the first round already marked a major breakthrough.
"The National Front has arrived as a major independent force
- a political force both at the national and local level," Le
Pen, who scored 18 percent in the 2012 presidential election,
told TF1 television.
An exit poll by pollster BVA put Hollande's Socialists and
their left-wing allies at 43 percent of the vote, trailing
opposition conservatives whose 48 percent put them on track to
reverse Socialist gains made in the 2008 municipal elections.
The FN scored seven percent of the vote, BVA estimated, a
high national tally given that it only fielded candidates in 596
out of some 36,000 municipalities across France.
Its candidate Steeve Briois was declared winner with an
outright majority of votes in the northern town of
Henin-Beaumont, a former coalmining centre with 125,000
inhabitants that has long been in Socialist hands.
Exit polls put it ahead in the eastern town of Forbach in
France's former industrial heartland. In the south, it was in
the lead in Avignon, Perpignan, Beziers and Frejus and vying for
second place in Marseille behind the conservative incumbent.
There was some solace for the Socialists as a TNS Sofres
exit poll showed their candidate for Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo,
well ahead of her conservative rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
Other polls gave Kosciusko-Morizet a better showing, but the
mayor is chosen by the city council and analysts say the power
balance there favours the Socialists.
"ALL AGAINST THE FN"
Pollsters have identified half a dozen towns that could see
FN rule after next Sunday's run-offs, giving it the chance to
show it can be trusted with power after attempts to run four
towns in the late 1990s revealed its lack of competence.
With official figures expected to show turnout at record
lows around 65 percent of voters, Prime Minister Jean-Marc
Ayrault made a television appeal for "all democratic forces" to
close ranks against FN candidates next week.
"Wherever the FN is in a position to win the second round,
all who support democracy and the Republic have a duty to
prevent them," Ayrault said, calling on voters to turn out in
greater numbers than for the first round.
Heavy losses for Hollande's party could trigger a re-shuffle
of his cabinet and encourage backbench attacks on a raft of new
pro-business policies on which Hollande has called a vote of
confidence in coming weeks.
However the final outcome will depend in some cases on
highly unpredictable three-way races between the Socialists, the
UMP and the National Front.
While Ayrault called for Socialist and UMP voters to back
whichever of the major parties' candidates is best placed to
ensure the FN does not win control of a town, the UMP is seen
declining such a pact.
Le Pen has sanctioned or ejected members found to have made
racist comments. While sceptics say much of the party's grass
roots remains racist, analysts say the strategy has made it more
acceptable to many potential voters.
"The National Front is much less repulsive than it has been
in recent years," said Jean-Daniel Levy, an analyst with
pollster Harris Interactive. "Voters are not looking for the
most competent candidate, but the one who shares their feelings
about the state of French society."
Polls also show the FN emerging as the leading French party
in European Parliament elections in May.
(Additional reporting and writing by Mark John; Editing by Tom