Sarkozy's Party Trails in Local Voting
Candidates looked to cut deals with adversaries in a bid for victory in next week's second round of French municipal elections after a first vote that sent a warning to President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The small, centrist party could be a decisive factor in determining whether the governing right can soften the message of caution delivered Sunday by winning decisive races on March 16.
The opposition left held a slim lead. With more than 76 percent of ballots counted, candidates from Sarkozy's UMP party and its allies had 45.5 percent of the nationwide vote — compared to 47 percent for the Socialists and their allies.
Voters are choosing mayors and other local leaders in more than 36,000 towns and cities nationwide.
"There was an advantage for the left and a warning for the right and Nicolas Sarkozy," Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande said Monday on France-Info radio.
Sarkozy's party took comfort in the fact that the left failed to decisively spread its victories across France in the first round and looked to save face in the second. Mobilizing voters and cutting deals with the young centrist party of Francois Bayrou could potentially turn the tide for the right.
Paris, wrenched from the right in 2001 presidential elections, looked ready to remain in the hands of the Socialists.
Rightist candidate Francoise de Panafieu immediately sought to join forces with the centrists, who placed third, to transform the first-round loss — an offer immediately rejected.
The left won nearly a dozen cities from the governing right, including the central town of Rodez which changed camps after more than a half century on the right.
It kept the plum city of Lyon and was likely to maintain its hold on Paris. Should it win Toulouse and Marseille in the second round, the Socialists will hold France's four largest cities.
While most voters chose based on local matters like maternity wards or garbage service, Sarkozy's dynamic persona — and his apparent loss of popularity — loomed large over the elections. The president himself sought to infuse them with national import.
Analysts warned that the bid could backfire on the increasingly unpopular president, and that the overall outcome could affect Sarkozy's appetite for reforms to the euro zone's No. 2 economy.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon insisted that would not be the case. "We will hold our course on reforms," he said Sunday night, urging voters not to confuse local issues with national ones.
Segolene Royal, the Socialist who lost her presidential race against Sarkozy last spring, said France was punishing Sarkozy for the rising cost of living and meager increases in pensions, among other issues. "All this anger is being manifest today," Royal said.
The chief of Sarkozy's party, Patrick Devedjian, acknowledged that the initial results were "not good."
Sarkozy's once-soaring popularity ratings have withered in recent weeks amid increasing frustration with what critics call his ostentatious and impetuous presidential style. While Sarkozy's dramatic romance with Carla Bruni dominated headlines, voters' pocketbook concerns remained unanswered.
Sarkozy won the presidency on pledges to make France more competitive by easing rigid labor laws and lowering taxes, but has pushed through mostly minor reforms. Meanwhile, inflation is up and consumer confidence down.
The conservatives held their own in one major city, Bordeaux.