France to vote in local elections, seen as test for Sarkozy

The first round of French local elections Sunday comes at a tough moment for conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose popularity has plummeted during 10 months in office. The elections for mayor, deputy mayor and municipal councilor culminate in a final round March 16. The economy remains sluggish and Sarkozy has backed off from the sweeping economic reforms that he promised before his election - two points which may give the rival left, led by the Socialists, the advantage. The left hopes to make the election into a sanction against Sarkozy, and also to turn the tide after a wave of victories by conservatives in the last municipal elections, in 2001, and a defeat in the May presidential election. Many candidates of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, have removed the party logo from their posters. Sarkozy has been lying low, with Prime Minister Francois Fillon making visits instead to shore up support for candidates in the provinces.