Sarkozy camp suffers setbacks in French local polls
PARIS, March 10, 2008 - President Nicolas Sarkozy's camp sufferedsetbacks in several major cities in round one of French local electionsSunday, dealing a new blow to the right-winger as he battles a collapse inpopularity. Exit polls showed the opposition Socialists well-placed to score big gainsover Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), in next Sunday's decisivesecond round of a vote cast as a referendum on his presidency. The Socialists retained a firm grip on the capital Paris and cemented theirhold on France's third city Lyon -- clinching victory in round one -- as wellas on the northern city of Lille. Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a rising star of the left and one of France'smost popular politicians, received a resounding thumbs-up for hispro-environment urban policies, with about 41.6 percent of first round votes,against 27.9 for his right-wing rival Francoise de Panafieu. Delanoe's Green party allies won 6.7 percent of the vote. Nationwide, left-wing parties took some 47.5 percent of the vote, wellahead of the UMP and its allies on 40 percent, according to a CSA survey.Turnout was high, estimated at close to 70 percent. Socialist leader Francois Hollande said voters had sent "a warning to thepresident of the republic and the government on the policies conducted overthe past nine months." Fellow Socialist Segolene Royal, who had urged voters to "punish" Sarkozy'sgovernment, called on them to keep up the pressure in round two. In Sarkozy's camp, Prime Minister Francois Fillon accused the left-wingopposition of "mixing up local and national issues" during the campaign -- butUMP chief Patrick Devedjian admitted on television the results were "not good." Right-wing former prime minister Alain Juppe held on to the southwesternwine capital Bordeaux, winning reelection in the first round. But the Socialists appeared well-placed to seize the eastern city ofStrasbourg -- one of three key trophies up for grabs along with the secondcity Marseille on the Mediterranean and southwestern Toulouse where theoutgoing mayors and their socialist challengers were headed for a face-offSunday. The left dethroned the UMP in the northwestern city of Rouen and in nearbyCaen the Socialists had a lead of 10 percentage points over the conservativesahead of Sunday's second round. In southern Rodez the Socialists took city hall for the first time in 55years. The communists and their socialist allies retook the town hall of thenorthern port city of Dieppe which they had lost in 2001. The symbolic loss of one or more major city further hurts Sarkozy'sreputation and could undermine his ability to plough ahead with wide-rangingreforms. Triumphantly elected in May on a pledge to overhaul France's economy andtackle the rising cost of living, Sarkozy's approval rating has plummeted from67 percent in July to around one third of the electorate. The president's divorce from his second wife Cecilia, followed by ajet-setting romance and swift marriage to supermodel and singer Carla Bruni,gave many voters the impression he was neglecting their concerns. The Socialists accuse Sarkozy of hobnobbing with the rich and famous whiledrawing up an austerity plan for ordinary folk. Despite a fall in unemployment to 7.5 percent, its lowest level in morethan two decades, French consumer confidence is stuck at a 21-year low. Forty-four million French voters were called to choose the mayors and localcouncillors of 37,000 towns and villages as well as filling half of all localcanton, or district, seats on the country's 100 departmental councils. Until Sunday's election Sarkozy's UMP controlled 55 percent of all towns ofmore than 30,000 inhabitants, after winning 23 from the left in 2001. The vote has only a minor effect on national politics: of the 20 governmentmembers standing for local office, eight were comfortably elected in roundone, with only Education Minister Xavier Darcos facing a tricky challenge. With 52 percent of the votes the president's 21-year-old son Jean won acantonal seat in Neuilly, the wealthy Paris suburb that catapulted his fatherto political prominence some 30 years ago.