President Nicolas Sarkozy's camp suffered setbacks in several major cities in round one of French local elections Sunday, dealing a new blow to the right-winger as he battles a collapse in popularity.
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.
The Socialists retained a firm grip on the capital Paris and cemented their hold on France's third city Lyon -- clinching victory in round one -- as well as on the northern city of Lille.
Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a rising star of the left and one of France's most popular politicians, received a resounding thumbs-up for his pro-environment urban policies, with about 41.6 percent of first round votes, against 27.9 for his right-wing rival Francoise de Panafieu.
Delanoe's Green party allies won 6.7 percent of the vote.
Nationwide, left-wing parties took some 47.5 percent of the vote, well ahead of the UMP and its allies on 40 percent, according to a CSA survey. Turnout was high, estimated at close to 70 percent.
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."
Fellow Socialist Segolene Royal, who had urged voters to "punish" Sarkozy's government, called on them to keep up the pressure in round two.
In Sarkozy's 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."
Right-wing former prime minister Alain Juppe held on to the southwestern wine capital Bordeaux, winning reelection in the first round.
But the Socialists appeared well-placed to seize the eastern city of Strasbourg -- one of three key trophies up for grabs along with the second city Marseille on the Mediterranean and southwestern Toulouse where the outgoing mayors and their socialist challengers were headed for a face-off Sunday.
The left dethroned the UMP in the northwestern city of Rouen and in nearby Caen the Socialists had a lead of 10 percentage points over the conservatives ahead of Sunday's second round.
In southern Rodez the Socialists took city hall for the first time in 55 years.
The communists and their socialist allies retook the town hall of the northern port city of Dieppe which they had lost in 2001.
The symbolic loss of one or more major city further hurts Sarkozy's reputation and could undermine his ability to plough ahead with wide-ranging reforms.
Triumphantly elected in May on a pledge to overhaul France's economy and tackle the rising cost of living, Sarkozy's approval rating has plummeted from 67 percent in July to around one third of the electorate.
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 their concerns.
The Socialists accuse Sarkozy of hobnobbing with the rich and famous while drawing up an austerity plan for ordinary folk.
Despite a fall in unemployment to 7.5 percent, its lowest level in more than two decades, French consumer confidence is stuck at a 21-year low.
Forty-four million French voters were called to choose 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.
Until Sunday's election Sarkozy's UMP controlled 55 percent of all towns of more than 30,000 inhabitants, after winning 23 from the left in 2001.
The vote has only a minor effect on national politics: of the 20 government members standing for local office, eight were comfortably elected in round one, with only Education Minister Xavier Darcos facing a tricky challenge.
With 52 percent of the votes the president's 21-year-old son Jean won a cantonal seat in Neuilly, the wealthy Paris suburb that catapulted his father to political prominence some 30 years ago.