President Nicolas Sarkozy suffered a national beating by voters who took their frustrations over the economic crisis to the ballot box and clearly favored his leftist challengers in regional elections.
Near-complete official results showed Socialist and other leftist candidates dominating Sunday's first round vote to choose governments of France's 26 regions. The decisive runoff is March 21.
The far right National Front party had a stronger-than-expected showing after years in decline, buoyed by voters worried anew about immigration and France's growing Muslim population.
With more than 96 percent of votes counted, candidates from the Socialist and other parties on the left won 53.6 percent of the overall vote, according to the Interior Ministry. Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and others on the right won 39.8 percent.
The UMP's poor results, combined with an unusually low turnout of 47 percent, spells widespread discontent with the increasingly unpopular Sarkozy.
Sarkozy remained silent Sunday night, leaving comment from the government's top echelon to Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
"It's not over. Everything is open" before the runoff, Fillon said, remaining combative even as other UMP colleagues wrung their hands on televised talk shows.
Many blame Sarkozy for failing to protect jobs amid France's worst economic downturn since World War II. The long-divided Socialists are reaping the benefits of that anger.
Socialist leader Martine Aubry, unusually poised and eloquent in a speech to supporters Sunday night, said that in casting their ballots, the French "wanted most of all to express their wish for a more just and stronger France."
Though the campaign focused on regional concerns such as roads and local jobs, many saw the vote as a referendum on Sarkozy.
Polls suggest that in round two, the Socialists or their allies will win the overwhelming majority of France's 26 regions. The Socialists already run 20 of the 22 regions on the French mainland after the last elections in 2004.
The green-minded party Europe Ecologie, riding voter concern about global warming, are expected to align with the Socialists in many regions for the runoff, as will several other leftist parties.
National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen spoke on national television Sunday night holding up a poster that says "No to Islamism." He dismissed those who said his party, which won nearly 12 percent nationwide, was "vanquished, dead, buried."
"It's a worrying moment ... The National Front is back at a level not seen in years," said Francois Bayrou, former presidential candidate and head of the centrist MoDem party.
The National Front effectively tied for third-place nationally with Europe Ecologie, both with about 12 percent of the vote.
"Europe Ecologie is the third political force," in France, said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the party.
Results showed a close race in Alsace, one of the last bastions of the right. The Socialists looked set to keep hold of the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris.Reuse content