Sarkozy punished in municipal elections

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French voters signalled their severe displeasure with President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday, 10 months after he promised to create a "winning" France for the 21st century.

Early indications suggested that the left would make substantial gains in municipal and county elections, capturing several large towns from the president's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

After the first round of voting, with a relatively high turnout of about 70 per cent, the main opposition party, the Socialists, seized control of Rouen and Alençon and seemed likely to take over the town halls in Strasbourg, Caen, Reims, Amiens and Perigueux, where the Education minister, Xavier Daros, was struggling to hold on to his mayorship. The outcome was uncertain in Marseilles – a city long controlled by the right and a key target for the left. But the Socialists seemed to have fallen short in their drive to capture Toulouse.

The Socialist Mayor of Paris, Betrand Delanoë, seemed bound for a comfortable victory in the second round next Sunday – igniting further speculation about his possible national ambitions. He scored more than 40 per cent of the vote in the first round, compared with 28 per cent for the UMP – a disastrously low score for a centre-right, which controlled the city until 2001. The left also looked certain to hold on to control of Lyon.

President Sarkozy's popularity has plummeted since the beginning of the year, punctured by falling living standards and dissatisfaction with his celebrity image and casual presidential style. Many of his own UMP supporters had begged him to stay away from the municipal campaign and some had even removed the party emblem from their leaflets and websites.

Yesterday's elections, to more than 36,000 city, town and village councils and half of the 96 départements (counties), were his first direct exposure to voter anger since his election last May. Although many of the issues and grievances were local, municipal elections have considerable national importance.