Ministers to pay price for Sarkozy's woes

President likely to ask for new government to be formed after poll results

President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to reshuffle his government in the next few days after a stinging defeat in the second round of regional elections yesterday.

The Left and Greens took a projected 54.1 per cent of the vote nationwide last night, leaving Mr Sarkozy's centre-right trailing a poor second with 36.1 per cent. The far-right National Front took just 8 per cent of the national vote but its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine, scored more than 20 per cent in Provence and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Mr Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) lost 21 of the 22 regions in metropolitan France – avoiding a complete rout by holding on to Alsace. The UMP won two of the four overseas regions but lost control in Corsica.

The Prime Minister François Fillon said last night that he "accepted his share of responsibility" for a "disappointing" result. He hinted that he would offer his resignation to Mr Sarkozy this morning. The President is, however, expected to ask the relatively popular Prime Minister to stay on and reshuffle his government in an attempt to mollify disgruntled centre-right voters who stayed at home in large numbers. The foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, a recruit from the Left, and symbol of President Sarkozy's strategy of "ouverture" to other political parties, is said to be one of the senior ministers most at risk.

Martine Aubry, the leader of the Parti Socialiste, hailed what she was said was a victory of "unprecedented" magnitude. "The politics of France has changed tonight," she said. "The French have rejected the policies of the President and his government."

Although the Left's victory does not directly affect Mr Sarkozy's capacity to govern at a national level, it will make the last two years of his presidential term deeply uncomfortable. He already faces street protests tomorrow from a day of action organised by trades union federations. According to critics within his own camp, the president refuses to acknowledge that the collapse of the centre-right vote in the first round last Sunday – to the lowest level for half a century – was mostly a protest against his often egocentric and erratic style of government. Many of Mr Sarkozy' own supporters complain that the president's drive to rescue the "French model" by a programme of allegedly radical reform has lost direction and credibility.

Mr Sarkozy is reported to have considered firing the Prime Minister, Mr Fillon, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact he is more popular than the President. The finance minister, Christine Lagarde, and the head of the UMP group in the lower house of parliament, Jean-François Copé, are reported to have been approached by the Elysée as possible successors. In the end, Mr Sarkozy is said to have decided that he cannot afford to ditch his premier but must offer a couple of other sacrificial ministerial victims.

One of President Sarkozy's senior aides, Claude Guéant, the secretary general of the Elysée Palace, indicated on Saturday that there would be a government reshuffle but he insisted that it would be "modest" and "technical". Other sources on the centre-right said that they expected at least a couple of senior heads to fall.

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