France holds a final round of voting on Sunday in local elections that could deliver a slap to President Nicolas Sarkozy as the leftist opposition vies for control of the top four cities.
The Socialists won re-election in France's third city of Lyon in a first round of voting last Sunday and were on course for victory in Paris, which they took from the right in 2001.
But the second city of Marseille was shaping up as the big prize, with the incumbent right-wing mayor holding a slight lead over his Socialist rival.
Much is also riding on Toulouse, the fourth largest city, where the right has held sway for 37 years.
Ten months after his convincing victory in presidential polls, Sarkozy has signalled that the results of the local elections will probably lead to some adjustments but no radical shift away from his drive to reform France.
"The people will have spoken. I will naturally take into account what they expressed," said Sarkozy this week during a trip to the Mediterranean city of Toulon where he spoke about immigration control, one of his signature themes.
Elected in May on a platform of sweeping economic and social reforms, Sarkozy has since January been tumbling in public opinion polls, his approval rating reaching a low of 38 per cent this month.
Pollsters attribute the steep drop to pessimism about the economy coupled with perceptions that the president is distracted by his personal life, after his divorce from second wife Cecilia and marriage to supermodel Carla Bruni.
The Socialists and even some right-wing commentators described the outcome of round one as a "warning" to Sarkozy, but leaders of his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party have rejected suggestions the results were a rebuff of his policies.
Both the UMP and the Socialists have reached out to centrists for alliances ahead of the second round that will determine whether voters have heeded the left's call to "punish" the government at the ballot box.
Last Sunday, the Socialists took at least seven smaller cities from the right including Rouen in Normandy and the northern town of Dieppe and were well-placed to win Strasbourg in the east.
In Marseille, ruled by the right since 1995, the Socialists won 39 per cent of the vote, just behind the UMP's score of 41 per cent, and have cut a deal with the centrist Democratic Movement (Modem) for backing.
Modem garnered six percent, although turnout was low in the first round in Marseille.
Socialist Segolene Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in the May presidential polls, has said the result in the first round amounted to a "vote of censure" and called for a large turnout for Sunday.
"A penalty from the municipal elections would not tarnish the legitimacy of the president," commented political analyst Alain Duhamel.
"But it incites, invites and presses the head of state to take action, to rectify his stance, in short to show that he is a realist," he said.
Nationwide, leftwing parties won 47 per cent of the vote compared with 45 per cent for the right, according to interior ministry results compiled by AFP for the first round.
In all, 23 ministers from the rightwing government ran for local office, with 14 elected in the first round, a result that Sarkozy has said showed "recognition for their talent and skills."
The president has ruled out any major reshuffle of his cabinet as a result of the election results. (AFP)
Follow Emirates 24|7 on Google News.