French voters scarred by economic crisis dealt President Nicolas Sarkozy and his conservative leadership a stern blow Sunday by strongly favoring leftist candidates in regional elections, according to near-complete official results.
Some took their worries about immigration and France's growing Muslim population to the ballot box — helping the far right National Front party upset predictions and perform strongly in Sunday's first-round voting to choose regional governments.
With more than 96 percent of votes counted, candidates from the Socialist and other leftist parties won 53.6 percent of the overall vote, according to the Interior Ministry. Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and others on the right won 39.8 percent.
The UMP's poor showing combined with an unusually low turnout of 47 percent, spells widespread discontent with the increasingly unpopular Sarkozy.
Sarkozy remained silent Sunday night, leaving comment from the government's top echelon to Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
"It's not over. Everything is open" before the decisive runoff March 21, Fillon said, remaining combative even as other UMP colleagues wrung their hands on televised talk shows.
Many blame Sarkozy for failing to protect jobs amid France's worst economic downturn since World War II. The long-divided Socialists are reaping the benefits of that anger.
Socialist leader Martine Aubry, unusually poised and eloquent in a speech to supporters Sunday night, called the result "encouraging."
In casting their ballots, the French "wanted most of all to express their wish for a more just and stronger France," she said.
Polls suggest that in round two, the Socialists or their allies will win the overwhelming majority of France's 26 regions. The Socialists already run 20 of the 22 regions on the French mainland after trouncing conservatives in the last elections in 2004.
Candidates from the green-minded party Europe Ecologie, riding voter concern about global warming, are expected to align with the Socialists in many regions for the runoff, as will several other leftist parties.
Fillon urged voters who skipped the first round to come out for the second round, "at a moment when the economic and financial crisis demands sang-froid, courage and unity."
Though the campaign focused on regional concerns such as roads and local jobs, the vote was seen by many as a referendum on Sarkozy.
Sarkozy promised sweeping reforms to make France's economy more dynamic by loosening labor protections before he was elected in 2007. But he changed his free-market rhetoric when the financial crisis hit, calling for a more "moral capitalism" including limits on bankers' bonuses and in recent days for global regulations of hedge funds.
Stimulus packages and government intervention to keep Renault from sending carmaking jobs to Turkey have failed to shore up Sarkozy's approval ratings, down below 40 percent. Workers from day cares to oil refineries staged strikes or protests last week, or locked up their bosses to protest factory closures.
France's struggle to integrate its millions of Muslims has also come to the fore in the campaign for 1,880 seats on regional governments in mainland France and in overseas regions from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.
National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen spoke on national television Sunday night holding up a poster that says "No to Islamism." He said his party, which won nearly 12 percent nationwide, is the only one that can overcome the crisis in the country.
"It's a worrying moment ... The National Front is back at a level not seen in years," said Francois Bayrou, former presidential candidate and head of the centrist MoDem party.
The National Front performed especially well in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region on the English Channel, where unemployment is high, and in Le Pen's home region on the French Riviera.
The National Front effectively tied for third-place nationally with Europe Ecologie, both with around 12 percent of the vote.
"Europe Ecologie is the third political force," in France, said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the party. It has frayed a "tremendous path," he said.
Results showed a close race in Alsace, one of the last bastions of the
right. The Socialists looked set to keep hold of the region that
includes Paris, the Ile-de-France.
Segolene Royal, Sarkozy's
Socialist challenger in the 2007 election, led comfortably in her bid
for re-election as president of the Poitou-Charente region on the
Royal, who could seek to challenge Sarkozy again
in the next presidential election in 2012 despite friction with
Socialist colleagues, appeared buoyed by Sunday's nationwide results as
well as her own. The election, she said, constituted "a severe sanction
vote" against Sarkozy.