French local elections showed up the strength of Socialist politicians, while pointing to the increased weakness of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's political camp.
Sarkozy has battled a slide in popularity since taking office
While it was not seen as a brutal loss, Sarkozy's political allies nonetheless suffered setbacks in several major cities in round one of French local elections Sunday. The vote was seen as a referendum on the right-wing president, who is battling a collapse in popularity.
Exit polls showed the opposition Socialists well-placed to score big gains over Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in next Sunday's decisive second election round.
Socialist leader Hollande called the vote "a warning"
Nationwide, left-wing parties took some 47.5 percent of the vote, well ahead of the UMP and its allies, which had 40 percent, according to a CSA survey.
Turnout was high, estimated at close to 70 percent.
Socialists show their strength
The Socialists retained a firm grip on the capital, Paris, and cemented their hold on France's third city Lyon -- clinching victory in the first round -- as well as on the northern city of Lille.
Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a rising star of the left and one of France's most popular politicians, received a resounding thumbs-up for his pro-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.
Socialist leader Francois Hollande said voters had sent "a warning to the president of the republic and the government on the policies conducted over the past nine months."
In Sarkozy's camp, Prime Minister Francois Fillon accused the left-wing opposition of "mixing up local and national issues" during the campaign. But UMP chief Patrick Devedjian admitted on television the results were "not good."
Planned reforms could be endangered
Right-wing former prime minister Alain Juppe held on to the south-western wine capital Bordeaux, winning reelection in the first round.
But the Socialists appeared well-placed to seize the eastern city of Strasbourg -- one of three key trophies up for grabs along with the second city, Marseille, on the Mediterranean, and southwestern Toulouse, where the outgoing mayors and their socialist challengers were headed for a face-off Sunday.
Sarko' torrid romance with Carla Bruni did not endear him to voters
The symbolic loss of one or more major city further hurts Sarkozy's reputation and could undermine his ability to plough ahead with wide-ranging reforms.
Sarkozy's approval rating has plummeted from 67 percent, in July, to around one third of the electorate since he was triumphantly voted into office, in May, on a pledge to overhaul France's economy and curb rising costs.
President's personal life is liability
The president's divorce from his second wife Cecilia, followed by a jet-setting romance and swift marriage to supermodel and singer Carla Bruni, gave many voters the impression he was neglecting their concerns.
The Socialists have accused the president of hobnobbing with the rich and famous while drawing up an austerity plan for ordinary folk.
Despite a fall in unemployment to 7.5 percent, its lowest level in more than two decades, French consumer confidence is stuck at a 21-year low.