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Ballot-box warning for under-fire Sarkozy

Image: France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's party was punished at the ballot box in municipal elections on Sunday.Eric Feferberg / Pool via Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

French voters dealt a stinging warning to President Nicolas Sarkozy by throwing his party out of office in a string of towns and cities, a ballot box setback that prompted immediate promises of reinvigorated reforms from his government.

Sarkozy will "take into account the message expressed by the French," government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez said Monday, adding that there would be "adjustments" in the Cabinet soon but no major shake up.

Reading into the election outcome, he said on France-Inter radio that voters seemed to want results from promised reforms "faster in their daily lives."

While of only limited national import, the reverses in municipal elections Sunday for mayors and city councilors were a sobering reminder of how the 53-year-old Sarkozy has shrunk in the estimation of some voters since he was elected last May on a program of in-depth economic and social change for France.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon vowed to stay the course of reform despite demands for a change of tack from opposition Socialists buoyed by their showing in the elections. Fillon promised stepped-up efforts to create jobs and fatten paychecks -- both leading demands of the French.

'Change takes time'
"You can't change a great country like ours in a few months," he said. "Tenacity is needed to reform."

Among expected changes in Sarkozy's team is the departure of presidential spokesman David Martinon, disgraced after an internal party rebellion forced him out of the mayoral race in Sarkozy's fiefdom of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

From foie gras country in the southwest to Champagne country in the northeast, towns where Sarkozy's UMP party had been in charge swung to the opposition Socialists.

Reeling since Sarkozy defeated their candidate, Segolene Royal, last May, the Socialists could now bounce back as more of a coherent, forceful opposition to Sarkozy on the back of the municipal results.

Royal called Sunday's results "a vote of hope."

The UMP's one major victory was Marseille, where they hung on after a tight and crucial contest.

Paris and Lyon stayed in Socialist hands, while Toulouse, Strasbourg, Blois, Reims, Caen and Amiens were among many towns and cities that swung left. In Perigueux, Sarkozy's minister for education, Xavier Darcos, lost his bid for re-election by 113 votes.

Looked at nationally, near-complete official results showed parties of the left leading slightly, with 48.7 percent of the overall vote to 47.6 percent for the right.

Controversial behavior
Sarkozy has been beset by low poll ratings and complaints that he has acted in a manner unbefitting for a president with a series of angry public outbursts, a widely publicized divorce, and a quick courtship and marriage to former model and singer Carla Bruni.

Ten months after his election, France's economy remains sluggish and Sarkozy has backed off from or toned down some of the sweeping reforms that he promised on the campaign trail last year.

Internationally, this year is a crucial one for his presidency: France takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July, which will put Sarkozy's leadership even more in the spotlight.