Image: Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Fillon
Philippe Wojazer  /  Reuters
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Prime Minister Francois Fillon shake hands at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Monday after discussing their party's losses in regional elections over the weekend.
updated 3/22/2010 5:12:35 PM ET 2010-03-22T21:12:35

President Nicolas Sarkozy dismissed his labor minister and reshuffled several other Cabinet posts Monday after leftists walloped his conservatives in France's regional elections — a defeat that exposed his inability to convince the public on his economic reforms.

Labor Minister Xavier Darcos lost his job after being soundly defeated in his election bid in the western Aquitaine region. Twenty of Sarkozy's Cabinet members ran for regional posts, and all lost. Budget Minister Eric Woerth was to step in for Darcos on Tuesday.

The election blowout Sunday could hand a new opening to Sarkozy's potential presidential rivals — from IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the Socialist camp to former prime minister Dominique de Villepin on the right. It also puts the onus on Sarkozy to lift public fortunes before the next presidential race in 2012.

"Overall, these elections are a serious warning for Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the presidential elections," said Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster at TNS Sofres.

The election leaves Sarkozy weakened as he heads off on two important trips — to an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday and a U.S. visit to New York and Washington next week.

At odds over Greek debt crisis
France and Germany have been at odds over how to handle the Greek debt crisis, with France preferring a European Union solution. But German officials say they can't rule out financial aid from the International Monetary Fund — a move that could boost Strauss-Kahn's profile.

Meanwhile, de Villepin — Sarkozy's political archenemy — was poised to announce a new political party, according to conservative lawmaker Francois Goulard, a member of the political group ClubVillepin.

A close Villepin ally was named in the Cabinet reshuffle, with lawmaker Georges Tron taking a new post in charge of the civil service — one of several changes to bridge differences within Sarkozy's conservatives. Tron said the party needed unity. "A gesture had to be made, and the president made it," he told i-Tele TV station.

Francois Baroin — briefly interior minister in 2007 and considered close to Sarkozy predecessor's Jacques Chirac — is France's new budget minister.

Lawmaker Marc-Philippe Daubresse was named minister for youths, while Martin Hirsch, head of the High Commission for Active Solidarity, was to become president of an agency for civic service. The Socialist Party complained that the shakeup didn't reflect voters' strong voice at the polls, calling it "skin deep."

Sarkozy, who has emerged from the political doldrums before, could bounce back after the setback: His party controls parliament with a big majority, and polls suggest French voters know the country needs reform on difficult issues like pensions.

Strikes planned for Tuesday
The long-flailing French left made a big comeback in Sunday's vote, dominated by worries about jobs, paychecks and pensions in the wake of France's worst recession since World War II.

Image: Jean-Paul Huchon, Cecile Duflot
Thomas Samson  /  Reuters
Jean-Paul Huchon, left, president of the Ile-de-France region and Socialist Party candidate, and Cecile Duflot, French Green party leader, speak at their campaign headquarters after regional elections.
Nationwide strikes are planned Tuesday by train drivers angry over pension reforms — the pillar of Sarkozy's presidential policies — and by teachers angry over job cuts.

With 99.6 percent of ballots counted, the Socialists and their left-leaning allies won 53.8 percent of the vote nationwide, while Sarkozy's UMP party had 35.5 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. Turnout dropped to record lows in the election, at 51 percent in Sunday's runoff and 46 percent in the first round a week earlier.

The vote left Sarkozy looking more isolated, squeezed between a resurgent left and resurgent extreme right.

His effort two years ago to sap the Socialists by inviting them to his government failed to bring leftist voters to his side and alienated members of his own party.

Meanwhile, his bid to draw in far-right voters with a debate on France's national identity and firm stance against Islamic full-face veils backfired, bringing anger at immigrants to the fore and sending more voters to the anti-immigration National Front.

The National Front party reversed years of declining support, winning between 13 percent and 22 percent of the vote in the 12 regions where they made it into Sunday's runoff.

Sunday's vote left Socialists in control of 23 of France's 26 regions.

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