- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

PARIS — The party of French President Nicolas Sarkozy did better than expected in the second round of municipal elections yesterday, signaling to officials in Mr. Sarkozy’s government that many voters want him to follow through with economic reforms.

As expected, France’s center-left Socialist Party scored wins in key cities such as Paris, Strasbourg, Rheims and Lille.

But Mr. Sarkozy’s center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) retained a critical battleground: the southern city of Marseilles.

With 89 percent of the vote counted, official results showed parties of the left leading slightly, with 48.7 percent of the overall vote to 47.6 percent for the conservatives.

Turnout was just more than 54 percent, slightly lower than the 56 percent of the first round of voting March 9, according to early results.

Opposition Socialists sought to frame elections for mayors and local lawmakers across France as a referendum on Mr. Sarkozy’s first 10 months in office.

“The movement of the first round was amplified during the second,” Socialist lawmaker Segolene Royal, who lost to Mr. Sarkozy in last year’s presidential elections, told TF1 television.

“We must now repair what the government has destroyed and damaged over eight months,” Miss Royal said.

But officials in Mr. Sarkozy’s UMP and independent analysts were quick to qualify opposition gains.

“It is not appropriate to draw national lessons from this vote. The importance of local issues and the low participation don’t allow it,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said.

“The vote by the French must not be used for partisan considerations.”

A BVA poll published yesterday found that 62 percent of voters were unhappy with the Sarkozy government’s performance, and local media speculated that a Cabinet shake-up is inevitable.

Still, the vast majority of UMP sympathizers thought the government should stick to its reforms, the survey found.

“The poll showed that the French definitely voted to the left tonight but they don’t want a change to the rhythm of reforms being carried out by the president and the government,” analyst Francois Perrineau told France Info radio.

After last week’s first round of voting, Mr. Sarkozy retreated from his promises of tax cuts and reforms of pension, welfare and labor laws that make France one of the least-competitive economies in Europe.

French media speculated that several senior government members will lose their jobs, including presidential spokesman David Martignon.

Mr. Sarkozy is expected to change at least in style. With his popularity at all-time lows and a reputation for an extravagant lifestyle, it is rumored he will adopt a more “presidential” demeanor.

“He will finally return to the presidential uniform better dressed and with more sobriety and, during these difficult times for many French, shelve the display of his well-being and his taste for luxury,” the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche wrote yesterday.

Mr. Sarkozy presented himself as the young, energetic face of change when he was elected in May, replacing longtime conservative President Jacques Chirac.

But his popularity dropped quickly over pension and labor reforms, soaring living costs and widespread unease with his chaotic personal life after he divorced and remarried in the space of months.

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