French voters cast their ballots Sunday in the second round of municipal elections in which the ruling Socialists were on course for a historic victory in Paris.
Should left-wing candidate Bertrand Delanoe become, as expected, the capital's next mayor, it would mark a humiliating defeat for President Jacques Chirac's Gaullist RPR party, which has controlled the powerful post for nearly a quarter century.
The vote will also set the tone for next year's presidential elections in which Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is expected to challenge Chirac.
The right's chances of retaining their stranglehold on Paris city hall have been blighted by internal divisions that led to two rival factions presenting candidates in the first round last Sunday.
One of the factions is headed by Philippe Seguin, the official Rally for the Republic candidate, and the second by Jean Tiberi, who took over from Chirac as mayor in 1997 but was later disowned by the RPR because of a series of corruption scandals.
Tiberi said Sunday he remained "reasonably optimistic" on the right's chances of winning in Paris but blamed any eventual defeat on Seguin.
"I regret that some people took the heavy responsibility not to merge lists in Paris, which was a determining factor as far as winning," he said.
Although he and Seguin struck a last-minute deal last week not to run against each other on Sunday in 11 of the city's 20 arrondissements, or districts, the right was still presenting two lists in six districts.
The split was expected to tip the balance in favour of Delanoe, who is one of France's few openly homosexual politicians and who was a relative unknown until he entered the race last year.
A poll published Saturday in the Tribune de Geneve indicated that the divisions within the right would allow the left to secure 84 to 95 of the 163 seats on the municipal council, which picks the mayor.
Delanoe merged his list with the Greens last week to improve his chances of victory.
Apart from Paris, attention on Sunday was also focussing on Lyon, where two rival right-wingers Charles Millon and Jean-Michel Dubernard have reached a pre-electoral pact in order not to create a three-corner fight with the Socialists.
In the southwestern city of Toulouse, the Socialists have formed a deal with both the Greens and the alternative list Motive-e-s -- concentrated in the immigrant North African community -- to try to keep out the conservative contender, former culture minister Philippe Douste-Blazy – PARIS (AFP)
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