World Bulletin/News Desk
President Francois Hollande was due to take soundings on a possible cabinet reshuffle on Monday after a drubbing for his Socialists in local elections handed the far-right National Front victory in a record number of towns.
Provisional results from Sunday's voting showed the protectionist, anti-EU party of Marine Le Pen set to take control of 11 towns across the country, easily surpassing a past record in the 1990s when it ruled in four towns.
"Punishment," read a front-page headline in the left-leaning Liberation newspaper.
At least another 140 towns swung from the left to mainstream opposition conservatives as voters punished Hollande for his failure to turn around the euro zone's second largest economy and tackle an unemployment rate stuck at more than 10 percent.
"The real question is: what does Francois Hollande want to do with our country?" Jean-Francois Cope, head of the opposition UMP party, told RTL radio. "What people want more than anything else is a sense of efficiency, of results."
While Hollande himself, who surveys show is the least popular leader in France's 56-year-old Fifth Republic, will remain in power, the question is whether he will replace Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose government has been accused of amateurism and of being paralysed by policy splits.
"There is no getting away from it: this vote is a defeat for the government ... and I take my part of the blame," Ayrault told national TV late on Sunday.
The National Front's 11 wins were largely in the south, which has a tradition of anti-immigrant feeling, but it also took power in northern and eastern districts suffering from France's industrial decline.
The FN's victories included the towns of Beziers, Le Pontet, Frejus, Beaucaire, Le Luc, Camaret-sur-Aigues and Cogolin in the south, and Villers-Cotteret and Hayange in the north. It had already made a breakthrough in last week's first round by winning power in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont.
"This result is proof that we can win on a grand scale," Le Pen told BFM TV.
Referring to European parliament elections due in late May, she added: "I'm going to fight to help the French people regain a sense of freedom... I think we can end up in the lead."
The FN now has a fresh chance to show it can be trusted with power after its attempts to run towns in the 1990s were widely judged to have exposed its failings, hurting its electoral fortunes for years afterwards.
'HOUR OF TRUTH'
Presidential aides said Hollande was due to see both Ayrault and centrist Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who polls show is the favourite of most French to take the premiership, during a busy day of closed-door consultations at his Elysee Palace.
The president was likely to make a statement on television soon, Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll told RTL radio.
"Condemned to change," read a headline in Le Parisien newspaper.
Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, one of half a dozen ministers whose jobs are widely tipped to be on the line, said the government had to demonstrate a greater commitment to social justice and job creation even as it pushed tough reforms.
Such comments will raise eyebrows among some of France's European partners and the European Commission, which has urged France to accelerate efforts to deal with its high level of public spending and free up its regulated economy.
A government source said after last week's first round of voting that Paris was preparing tax breaks for households, raising questions over whether France can fulfil a promise of bringing its public deficit down to within EU limits.
Data on Monday showed the government had missed its own deficit-cutting target in 2013, leaving Hollande a bigger-than-expected task to bring the deficit under the EU's target of 3 percent of gross domestic product next year.
But they were set to cede power in cities such as Toulouse, Angers and Quimper. The conservative UMP meanwhile saw off a challenge to its rule in the port of Marseille, although the FN won in the city's seventh district.