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10 months into office, Sarkozy's popularity dips

Mar 17, 2008 09:26 AM IST India India

Paris: France's opposition Socialists made sweeping gains in local elections, delivering a sharp blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy just 10 months after his triumph in last year's presidential election.

The Socialists retained control of the capital Paris and won a string of towns and cities from Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party, including the key cities of Toulouse and Strasbourg.

But they failed to win the biggest symbolic prize of the evening, France's third city of Marseille, which the right just managed to hold, saving itself from total humiliation in the nationwide vote.

The yesterday's elections were the first test of Sarkozy's popularity with voters since his victory last May, and the mood has changed sharply since then as the economy has faltered.

The Socialists, looking for a success to overcome the infighting that has plagued them since the defeat of their candidate, Segolene Royal, in the presidential election, won more than 15 major towns and cities from the right.

''And bling!'' was the headline of the left-wing daily Liberation above a full-page cartoon depicting a crushed Sarkozy, whom it habitually characterises as the ''bling-bling'' president.

Government leaders maintained that voters had decided on local issues and that the result would not affect national policies, but some were less sanguine.

''This is an evening of defeat,'' said Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the UMP parliamentary party.

Socialist leaders immediately called on the government to listen to voters and abandon ''unjust'' reforms but Prime Minister Francois Fillon said there would be no change of direction.

''We will not duck the difficulties, we will respect our commitments. With the President of the Republic, we will make France succeed,'' Fillon said in a televised statement.

Sarkozy came to power in May pledging a break with the failed policies of decades of past French government and promising better times for those prepared to work hard.

But growing worries over the soaring cost of living and dwindling spending power, combined with widespread irritation at his own glitzy lifestyle and brusque personal manner have combined to dent his image and torpedo his approval ratings.

He remained in the background during the final weeks of the campaign, leaving Fillon, his increasingly popular prime minister, to act as the government front-man in the campaign.

As if expecting defeat, he pledged after the first round of the election last week ''to draw the lessons from the election,'' though no major change of policy direction or cabinet reshuffle is expected.

''There is no question of touching the general architecture of the government or the main positions before the beginning of next year,'' his chief of staff Claude Gueant told the daily La Croix, saying there might be some ''technical readjustments''.

Sarkozy is expected to try to tone down his image as the hyperactive ''duracell'' president and restore his aura as head of state, attending events in coming days commemorating the wartime resistance and the death of France's last World War One veteran.

Education Minister Xavier Darcos was toppled from his local powerbase as mayor of Perigueux in the south, but there was no sign that he would lose his cabinet seat as a result.

Francois Bayrou, head of the centrist MoDem party, who came third in last year's presidential election, was embarrassingly beaten in the race for Pau in the south but pledged to continue with his drive to build a major third force in French politics.