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The French voted on Sunday in local elections predicted to deliver yet more bad news for Nicolas Sarkozy, whose popularity has plummeted since his triumphant presidential victory last year.
Sarkozy trounced his Socialist rival Segolene Royal in May with promises to overhaul France's economy but since then the rightwinger has seen his standing sink among voters dismayed by his flamboyant private life.
Opinion polls predict major gains for the Socialists in the two-round vote this Sunday and next, the first electoral test for Sarkozy since he moved into the Elysee presidential palace.
The Socialists are likely to hold on to Paris and the country's third biggest city Lyon, and could also take the second city Marseille, Strasbourg and Toulouse from the right.
These symbolic victories, serving as a snapshot of the national mood, might further damage the president's ailing reputation and undermine his ability to plough ahead with his wide-ranging reform programme.
Segolene Royal, voting in the western town of Melle, said the election was an opportunity for the French to "punish" the government.
The election also sees Sarkozy's 21-year-old son Jean standing for a cantonal seat in Neuilly, the wealthy Paris suburb that catapulted his father to political prominence some 30 years ago.
Nicolas Sarkozy's divorce from his second wife Cecilia in October, followed by a jet-setting romance and swift marriage to supermodel and singer Carla Bruni, gave voters the impression he was neglecting their needs, pollsters said.
Voters are also disappointed that despite Sarkozy's repeated promises to rein in the cost of living – a national obsession in France – inflation has hit a 15-year high at 2.8 per cent.
Sarkozy's opinion poll ratings have plummeted from 67 per cent last July to just 38 per cent in a CSA survey this week in Le Parisien newspaper.
The president, who voted Sunday in a polling station near the Elysee, is notorious for his frenetic energy and "omnipresence" but has kept an unusually low profile in the local election campaign.
Turnout was at 23 per cent by midday.
One Paris voter, who gave her name only as Martine, braved rain to turn up at a polling station in the 10th arrondissement, or district, to vote for the Green party.
"They've really changed the face of Paris, they've started to break the dominance of the car," she told AFP.
The Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, has, in partnership with the Greens, created a vast grid of new bus and cycle lanes in the capital and re-launched the tramway in a drive to slash traffic pollution.
Last year he opened a wildly popular cheap cycle hire network.
Delanoe is regularly named France's most popular politician and is often touted as a candidate in the next presidential race in 2012.
Sunday's vote has only a minor effect on national politics, even if 20 of Sarkozy's ministers and junior ministers are running for local office. But it is being cast as a referendum on the president's achievements.
He has eased France's 35-hour work week, the shortest in Europe, and reduced pension benefits for state workers, a feat which French presidents before him tried and failed.
Unemployment, persistently high in France for decades, has fallen to 7.5 per cent, its lowest level in more than two decades.
But this has not dispelled public gloom. Consumer confidence in France has fallen to a 21-year low and inflation is at a 15-year high.
The Socialists, riven by infighting and still smarting after a third consecutive presidential defeat, accuse Sarkozy of hobnobbing with the rich and famous while secretly drawing up a painful austerity plan for ordinary folk.
Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) currently controls 55 per cent of all towns of more than 30,000 inhabitants, after winning 23 from the left in 2001.
Forty-four million French voters are choosing the mayors and local councillors of 37,000 towns as well as filling half of all local canton, or district, seats on the country's 100 departmental councils. (AFP)
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