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Local polls deal a blow to Sarkozy's party

The opposition Socialist party made sweeping gains in the final round of France's municipal elections in what is widely viewed as a referendum on French President Nicolas Sarkozy's track record. (Report: G.Cragg)


France's opposition Socialists made sweeping gains in the final round of municipal elections Sunday, taking  49.6% of the votes against 47.5% for President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, according to a CSA-Dexia poll. Among the top three trophies of Sunday's poll, the Socialists took control of Strasbourg and Toulouse, two key cities previously held by the UMP.


But the ruling UMP party appeared to retain Marseille, France's second largest city and the third prize of the municipal runoff. "The victory in Marseille is what allows the Right to save its face," said FRANCE 24's Mary MacCarthy.


Despite the strong showings by the Left, Prime Minister François Fillon maintained the results were not an assessment of his government’s policies. “It would be ill-advised to draw conclusions on national politics from the results, given the importance of local issues in the elections,” he said in a televised statement Sunday night.


Socialist leader François Hollande confirmed that the party’s objective of winning 30 cities with a population exceeding 20,000 had been met. He urged Sarkozy to stick to his promise to listen to the French people and “adjust his conduct accordingly.”


Bayrou: There will be other fights


Sunday's runoff dealt a major setback for four of Sarkozy's Cabinet ministers. Education Minister Xavier Darcos was defeated by his Socialist rival in the southern city of Périgueux by a mere hundred votes. Junior Foreign Minister Rama Yade failed to win a seat in the municipal council from Colombes, a suburb of Paris, as did Culture Minister Christine Albanel in Paris' 4th arrondissement. Finance Minister Christine Lagarde also lost in Paris' 12th arrondissement. Sarkozy had earlier indicated that he wanted his ministers to contest the elections.


However Justice Minister Rachida Dati did win Paris'  7th arrondissement to become mayor of the district.


Centrist MoDem party leader, François Bayrou, admitted defeat in the southern city of Pau. His failure to attract voters signals difficult times for MoDem, which currently holds only three seats in parliament.


But in a televised speech Sunday night,  Bayrou, "the third man" candidate who briefly broke into last year's two horse presidential race, refused to be bowed. "There will be other fights," he said. "There will be other victories".



‘Bling-Bling president’ to draw lessons from results



Tumbling in the opinion polls, Sarkozy has signaled that the election results will lead to some adjustments, while aides have said a change in style was in store for the president.


“For the ruling UMP party, these elections have not come at the best time” explained FRANCE 24’s MacCarthy. “The popularity of President Nicolas Sarkozy has been dropping steadily in recent months. Indeed, in the run up to the vote he’s been keeping a low profile.”


Sarkozy has been battling to halt a freefall in opinion polls since January that has seen him lose some 30 points. Fewer than four in 10 voters now approve of his performance so far.


Pollsters attribute the drop to pessimism about the economy coupled with perceptions that the president is distracted by his personal life.


“Some candidates, like the mayor of Marseille Jean-Claude Gaudin, went so far as to blatantly distinguish themselves from President Sarkozy,” added MacCarthy.


Aides have suggested an image makeover was in order to rekindle voter approval of the 53-year-old president, criticised for a brash and at times extravagant style that earned him the nickname "the Bling-Bling president."


As part of the shakeup, presidential spokesman David Martinon will be replaced and three, possibly four, new junior ministers could be appointed this week, Elysee sources said.


But Sarkozy's allies have rejected suggestions that the results were a rebuke of the government's policies, pointing to the rare first-round election of 14 of the 24 ministers running for local office.






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