President Nicolas Sarkozy will take radical action to rebuild the style of his presidency after France's Socialist opposition scored a string of victories in local elections last night.
In the second round of municipal elections, the left appeared on course to capture more than 30 cities and large towns from the centre-right, including Toulouse, Strasbourg, Reims, Metz, Amiens, Caen, Angers, Saint Etienne, Blois and Angoulême.
The Socialists scored a landslide victory in the greatest municipal prize of all, Paris. In a key contest, the centre-right Mayor of Marseilles, Jean-Claude Gaudin, avoided a complete disaster for President Sarkozy by holding on to his town hall by the skin of his teeth. Overall, the centre-right was expected to lose around 30 large or middle-sized town halls – shifting the country's majority of municipal control to the left. The centre-right captured two or three towns, including Calais, which had been held by the Communists for three decades.
Nationwide, the centre -left took 49.5 per cent of the vote and M. Sarkozy's centre-right 47.5 per cent – a reversal of the presidential election 10 months ago. Even before yesterday's voting, M. Sarkozy had set in motion plans to adopt a quieter and more traditional presidential style, abandoning some of the familiarity, freneticism and conspicuous consumption which has alienated many voters.
In theory, at least, M. Sarkozy will return to the more aloof and semi-detached approach of his predecessors. Out will go the Rolex watches, dark glasses, jogging shorts and instant-reaction politics of the last 10 months. Instead, President Sarkozy has been advised to cultivate a more sober, restrained and statesmanlike image – starting with his state visit to Britain next week.
In an uncharacteristic act of mea culpa, the President will, in effect, accept most of the blame for last night's results and the rapid plunge in his popularity since the New Year. There will be no large-scale government reshuffle. The Prime Minister, François Fillon, will keep his job.
Instead, M. Sarkozy will reshuffle his own staff at the Elysée Palace. The press officer, David Martinon, a favourite of the President's ex-wife, Cecilia, will be dismissed today and not replaced. Weekly press briefings will be abandoned. Other senior officials who have caused controversy by appearing to run a parallel government from within the Elysée Palace will be reined in. M. Fillon made it clear last night, however, that there will be no radical change in the substance of government policy.
"The battle for jobs and living standards will continue," he said. "With President Sarkozy, we will make France victorious again." The Socialist leader, François Hollande said that the results meant that the "left has partially returned to power in France".
French leaders have often become unpopular for trying to change the status quo but not, it seems, President Sarkozy. If anything, the electorate is impatient with the pace of change since his election last May. Older voters – have become exasperated by his showbiz life-style, his casual treatment of the presidential office and his failure to halt a slide in purchasing power and living standards. The huge victory of the Socialist Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, will reignite speculation that he might become M. Sarkozy's principal rival for the presidency in 2012.
M. Delanoe has been an effective, pragmatic and popular mayor but some political commentators believe that his open homosexuality will make him unelectable outside the capital. All the same, his handsome victory will give him a freer hand to pursue his own ideas for the future of Paris, including the partial abolition of a ban on high-rise buildings to allow the construction of "distinctive" skyscrapers on the eastern edge of the city.