President Nicolas Sarkozy's camp suffered setbacks in several large cities in round one of French local elections Sunday, dealing a fresh blow to the right-winger whose popularity has plummeted since his triumphant election last year.
Exit polls showed the opposition Socialists well-placed to score big gains over Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in next Sunday's decisive second round of a vote cast as a referendum on his presidency.
Nationwide, the Socialists took an estimated 47.5 percent of votes, well ahead of the UMP and its allies on 40 percent, according to a telephone survey released by the CSA institute after the close of polls at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT).
Socialist leader Francois Hollande said voters had sent "a warning to the president of the republic and the government on the policies conducted over the past nine months."
"It is encouraging -- but we still have one hurdle left," Hollande said, calling on left-wing voters to remain mobilised for round two.
In the government camp, Prime Minister Francois Fillon accused the left-wing opposition of "mixing up local and national issues" during the campaign, but UMP chief Patrick Devedjian admitted on television the results were "not good."
According to exit polls from IPSOS, TNS-Sofres and CSA, the opposition Socialists dethroned the UMP in the northwestern cities of Rouen and Caen, and cemented their hold on the northern capital Lille.
The Socialists were expected to keep Paris and the country's third city Lyon and could also gain control of the second city Marseille, Strasbourg and Toulouse, where results were due later Sunday.
Such large symbolic victories were set to further damage Sarkozy's reputation and undermine his ability to plough ahead with his wide-ranging reform programme.
Sarkozy trounced his Socialist rival Segolene Royal in May with promises to overhaul France's economy but since then he has seen his standing sink among voters dismayed by his flamboyant private life.
The president's divorce from his second wife Cecilia, followed by a jet-setting romance and swift marriage to supermodel and singer Carla Bruni, gave many voters the impression he was neglecting his promises to boost incomes and rein in the cost of living.
Public support for the president has plummeted from 67 percent last July to around one third of the electorate.
Royal said the election was an opportunity for the French to "punish" the government and urged voters to keep up the pressure in round two "otherwise nothing will change."
The Socialists, still in disarray following their third consecutive defeat in a presidential election, accuse Sarkozy of hobnobbing with the rich and famous while secretly drawing up a painful austerity plan for ordinary folk.
Forty-four million French voters were choosing the mayors and local councillors of 37,000 towns and villages as well as filling half of all local canton, or district, seats on the country's 100 departmental councils.
Final turnout was expected to reach between 68 and 70.5 percent, according to late afternoon estimates, slightly higher than in the 2001 local polls.
Sarkozy's UMP currently controls 55 percent of all towns of more than 30,000 inhabitants, after winning 23 from the left in 2001.
The president's 21-year-old son Jean is standing for a cantonal seat in Neuilly, the wealthy Paris suburb that catapulted his father to political prominence some 30 years ago.
The local vote has only a minor effect on national politics, even if 20 of Sarkozy's ministers and junior ministers are running for local office. But it has been cast as a referendum on the president's achievements.
Sarkozy has eased France's 35-hour work week, the shortest in Europe, and reduced pension benefits for state workers, while unemployment has fallen to 7.5 percent, its lowest level in more than two decades.
But this has failed to dispel public gloom, with inflation at a 15-year high of 2.8 percent and consumer confidence at a 21-year low.