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French elections a blow for Sarkozy's conservatives

The opposition Socialists beat out the ruling UMP in many cities, prompting calls for the French president to modify his ambitious plans.

By Susan SachsCorrespondent / March 18, 2008

Jubilant: Supporters celebrated Sunday night in the southwestern city of Toulouse after helping to fuel a Socialist resurgence in France. The party suffered setbacks in 2007.

Jean-Philippe Arles/Reuters

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Paris

The once omnipresent French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been lying low for weeks as his approval ratings tumbled. But his absence did not save his right-wing party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), from an embarrassing rout.

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In closely watched local elections on Sunday, voters deserted the president's camp for the opposition Socialists. After a decade in the political wilderness and back-to-back national defeats, the French left returned with a roar, winning control of a majority of major metropolitan and regional assemblies.

Jubilant Socialist leaders immediately demanded a rollback of Mr. Sarkozy's economic reforms and an increase in public spending.

Ségolène Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in last year's presidential race but remains one of the Socialist Party's most high-profile members, called the results a "punishment" of the president's policies and a public censure of his governing style. Ms. Royal called on him to repeal tax cuts and work-incentives enacted last year.

Overall, the French right won 47.6 percent of the votes nationwide while the Socialists won 49.3 percent. Voter turnout, at 62 percent for city council races and 55 percent for regional assembly elections, was one of the lowest in years.

In televised remarks, Prime Minister François Fillon repeated the government's preelection mantra that the vote turned on local issues and was not a referendum on the president's tumultuous first nine months in office.

"It is inappropriate to draw national lessons from this vote," Mr. Fillon said. "And it should not be manipulated for partisan interests."

The Socialists won back city halls in 38 cities with populations of 20,000 or more, nearly making up for the 40 cities they lost in the last municipal elections in 2001. They held on to Paris, where Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë was assured of a second term, and they picked up the trophies of Strasbourg and Toulouse.

The one bright spot for the right was that it held onto the hotly contested city of Marseille, the second-largest in France and a traditional left-wing stronghold.

The results were not unexpected, given the precipitous drop in Sarkozy's popularity this year. While he said he retains his reforming zeal, he has already started to backpedal from his ambitious plans to deregulate the economy and reduce the government's size.

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