French President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party appeared to suffer major losses in municipal elections across the country Sunday in what some voters and public surveys described as a rebuke of his personal escapades and uneven economic programs.
Voting returns and exit polls indicated that Socialist candidates could unseat members of Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement in key towns in runoff elections next Sunday and were easily maintaining their power bases in Paris and Lyon, the country's third-largest city.
Nine months after his inauguration, Sarkozy has become such a liability to his party that most of its candidates shunned his support and some stripped the governing party's labels from their Internet sites and campaign literature.
Socialist leader Fran¿ois Hollande said voters sent "a warning to the president of the republic and the government on the policies conducted over the past nine months."
Prime Minister Fran¿ois Fillon, who represents the ruling party, accused the opposition of attempting to confuse national issues with local elections and vowed, "We will continue our reform policies."
But the ruling party's general secretary, Patrick Devedjian, conceded on national television that the results were "not good."
"In cities where the left was in power, it is now reinforced," saidBrice Teinturier, deputy general director of the TNS-Sofres polling group. "If the second round gives an even clearer advance to the left, it will be difficult for the president to say that this defeat is not questioning his policies."
Sarkozy, who was elected on promises to energize France's workplaces and restore its image, has only marginally advanced his proposals. But according to voters and opinion polls, his handling of his private life is primarily responsible for approval ratings that have plunged to 37 percent.
The main criticism is more about "image than politics," said Jean-Daniel Levy, joint director of the CSA opinion polling organization. "However, the question of decreasing purchasing power has also become a key concern that the government hasn't managed to defuse."
In a drama carried out in the mainstream media, Sarkozy divorced his wife a few months after his election, then four months later married an Italian model-turned-singer, Carla Bruni, whom he had known for 80 days.
This month, he stunned the public when he cursed out a man who had refused to shake his hand at an agricultural fair.
"My main motivation to vote today was to voice my discontent toward our government and president," said Christelle Depre, 27, a biology student on his way to vote for Socialist candidates at a school in central Paris.
Sunday's election was the first round of voting for 36,783 mayoral positions nationwide, as well as 515,000 local council seats. Even though the local elections are largely fought over such issues as schools and garbage pickup, many of the races were considered a referendum on Sarkozy's presidency.
The ruling party, which entered the elections holding 55 percent of towns with populations of at least 30,000, was expected to lose many of its town halls.
Almost half the members of the French National Assembly are mayors,and at least 20 of Sarkozy's cabinet ministers and deputy ministers were running for mayor in their home political bases.