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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.

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The local elections do not change the overall balance of power. Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party still controls the National Assembly and the Senate. But now that the Socialist Party has shed its losing image from their defeat in parliamentary elections last year, it could mount a more coherent resistance. And the president's now-sobered allies in parliament may be less eager to take on confrontational issues.

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The influential French newspaper Le Monde predicted the government will be forced to compromise with the opposition. "Voters have given the left a majority in local governments, while simultaneously imposing a sort of 'cohabitation' on the parliamentary majority," it editorialized on Monday.

Some conservatives tried to cast the results as a simple political correction or a tough-love message from voters to speed up reforms.

"Yes, it's a defeat," said Jean-François Copé, the UMP majority leader in the National Assembly. But he read it as the unhappy conjunction of "malcontents" on the left and right-wing voters "impatient" for faster change.

An opinion poll published this weekend by the Ipsos-Dell institute lent some support to that interpretation. The survey found that quirks once considered Sarkozy's strength – his insistence that he would single-handedly solve the country's problems, for example – have come to be seen as liabilities. Most people surveyed said they wanted to see less of him.

While respondents criticized him as lacking the proper gravitas for a French president, they also continued to back his policies. Only 1 in 4 respondents wanted the president to abandon his reform program.

The Socialists also talked of reform, saying they took the local election results as a mandate to oppose Sarkozy's plans to increase the public's share of health care costs and give employers greater flexibility in hiring.

Although it appeared to have shed its loser image, the French left still has its own internal divisions to overcome before it can mount a substantial challenge. Many of its victories in the local elections came only after Socialist lists merged for the second round with the Greens and centrists.

The traditional core of the party wants to renew the 30-year-old strategy of uniting all the left-wing parties, from moderate Socialists to the antiglobalization activists and Communists. Ms. Royal, the former presidential candidate, leads another faction that sees the party's only future as a center-left coalition along the lines of other European Socialists.

The municipal elections left some doubt as to whether France has a viable centrist movement. Only last year, the centrist François Bayrou won third place, with nearly 19 percent of the national vote, in the first round of presidential elections. But his party, MoDem, won less than 2 percent of the votes cast nationwide in city hall races. On Sunday, Mr. Bayrou failed to get reelected as mayor of his hometown of Pau, in the southwest.