President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party suffered setbacks in the first round of local elections on Sunday, threatening to tarnish his political standing less than a year after he took office.
The opposition Socialists looked certain to hold Paris and France's second city Lyon, which they won from the right in 2001. Initial results also suggested they made gains in several cities held by the UMP and could win some notable victories in the second round ballot on March 16.
Socialist leader Francois Hollande said voters had issued a warning to Sarkozy and the government but he cautioned against overconfidence by the left.
"Everything is open, nothing has been won. It is encouraging but another stage must now be reached," he said.
Sarkozy, elected triumphantly last May on a pledge to reform the French economy and modernise its institutions, has seen his popularity plunge as worries about the rising cost of living and disenchantment with his glitzy personal life have grown.
Latest polls have showed his approval ratings as low as 37 percent against highs of more than 65 percent last summer.
Government leaders sought to put a positive spin on the municipal results, which they said were not as bad as opinion polls had been predicting, but they said the elections were about local, not national issues.
"We should not confuse what is at stake. The politics of the nation were debated and decided by the French people in the Spring of 2007," said Prime Minister Francois Fillon, promising to push ahead with Sarkozy's reform plans regardless.
"We will achieve these objectives. We will continue our reform policies."
The Socialists, split by internal wrangles since the defeat of their candidate Segolene Royal in the 2007 presidential election, have sensed their first chance to hit back at Sarkozy.
Initial results showed they had taken power in the northern city of Rouen and were well placed to win other UMP strongholds like Strasbourg and Toulouse.
They are also hoping wrest control of France's third city, Marseille, although early surveys showed the sitting UMP mayor slightly ahead after the first round.
Local political leaders must now try to secure alliances with smaller parties, like the Greens and centrist MODEM party, to boost their chances in the March 16 ballot.
The municipal ballot holds a special place in French politics, with many national political figures running for office as mayor to try to build a local power base.
Several members of the cabinet, including Economy Minister Christine Lagarde, are standing for local office and face tough battles that could also affect their standing in government in the event of a big defeat.
Initial results showed the right trailing the Socialists badly in Lagarde's Paris district.
A CSA survey suggested that the far-right National Front also did very badly on Sunday, securing just 2 percent of overall vote. The party suffered major losses in 2007 elections and is now fighting to maintain its political profile.
Last Mod: 10 Mart 2008, 00:42