Voters in France have snubbed French President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives in local elections that are seen as a key test ahead of presidential elections next year. Sarkozy faces pressure from both left and right.
Sarkozy, who faces reelection, needs an upturn in the polls
France's Socialists emerged with the greatest share of the vote by far in local elections on Sunday, dealing a blow to French President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of presidential elections next year.
With the majority of votes counted early on Monday the left had attracted 49.9 percent of the vote. That figure, from the French Interior Ministry, compares with 35.9 percent for Sarkozy's conservative UMP party.
Although turnout was low, at about 46 percent, the polls are seen as the last test of popular support for Sarkozy against his rivals on the left before elections set for April, 2012.
"The people of France have opened the way to change," said Socialist leader Martine Aubry, a possible contender at the presidential elections.
Marine Le Pen appears to have attracted voters to the far-right National Front
UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope admitted that party colleagues were "a little disappointed."
However, the pressure on Sarkozy appears to be coming from the right, as well as the left. The far-right National Front scored 11 percent, having seen its polling popularity increase significantly since leader Marine Le Pen, daughter of long-time leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, took over in January.
Presidential poll shock
An opinion poll for the Le Parisien daily, suggesting that Le Pen herself could win the first round of the presidential election, has sent shockwaves through the center ground of French politics.
The French president's popularity has sunk to a record low of below 30 percent, with austerity measures to reduce the country’s level of public debt seen as a major factor in the decline.
Cantonal councils are responsible for services such as road building and schools, with each canton a smaller administrative unit within one of France's regional "departments."
Elections took place in about half of France's cantonal councils on Sunday.
Author: Richard Connor (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner