PARIS (Reuters) - France's far-right National Front knocked out left-wing rivals and won twice as many votes as the center-right UMP party in the first round of a local election in southern France, a sign of growing popularity for the anti-immigrant group.
Its candidate Laurent Lopez took 40.4 percent of the vote in the canton of Brignoles, near Toulon, late on Sunday versus 20.7 percent for the UMP candidate and 14.6 percent for the Communist. A canton is a constituency for a department council.
The National Front's score shows its current popularity can translate into strong ballot scores and amounts to a challenge to President Francois Hollande's Socialist Party for mayoral posts in municipal and European elections next year.
"This result is a very serious warning for the Left, showing that the National Front is very strong and that we have no right to be divided," Harlem Desir, head of the Socialist Party, told France Info radio.
"Obviously, I am urging voters to block the National Front in the second round, as I have always done, without any hesitation," he added in an implicit call for voters to back the UMP candidate.
The Socialist Party did not field a candidate in the quiet commune some 45 minutes inland from the port city of Marseille, but it had supported the Communist candidate. The election's second round is on Oct 13.
While Hollande's popularity has sunk, National Front leader Marine Le Pen is winning supporters from both the Socialist Party and the divided center-right UMP as voters rally to her tough positions on crime and illegal Roma encampments.
A TNS-Sofres poll for Le Figaro daily showed her rated as one of the country's most promising politicians, on a par with former UMP Prime Minister Francois Fillon, but well below tough-talking Interior Minister Manuel Valls.
In Brignoles, a quiet commune with some 15,000 inhabitants, the far-right scooped up nearly half of all votes in the first round thanks to an independent candidate who got 8 percent.
(Reporting by Gerard Bon and Nicholas Vinocur, editing by Tom Heneghan and Mark John)