France local elections: Socialists lose heavily

"Town after town fell to the right", reports Wendy Urquhart

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France's governing Socialists have suffered big losses in municipal elections, with the opposition UMP claiming victory and the far right celebrating further gains.

UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope hailed what he called a "blue wave" of support for his centre-right party.

The far-right National Front (FN) was heading for victory in 11 towns, partial results indicated.

The Socialists have been hit by growing discontent over the economy.

Analysis

Seen in the cold light of the next day, the losses suffered by President Hollande's Socialists are even more cruel than they first appeared. In all, they have lost more than 150 towns and cities of more than 9,000 inhabitants. True, Paris has stayed pink. But then Paris is different. And when you look at the suburbs (where after all more "Parisians" actually live), they have swung to the UMP like the rest of the country.

President Hollande seems to have hoped that whatever the opinion polls were saying, people would see that his policies were the right ones and so spare him the worst. He was wrong. The people did exactly what they said they would do - and gave him a hiding.

Some kind of government reshuffle seems inevitable. Maybe Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is for the chop. But the president's dilemma is acute. He says he has no intention of changing economic tack. But in that case, what is the point of changing the team?

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault acknowledged the vote was "a defeat for the government and the [Socialist] majority".

"This message is clear... The president will draw conclusions, and he will do so in the interest of France,'' he added, in an apparent reference to a likely cabinet reshuffle.

It was unclear when a new government might be announced, or whether Mr Ayrault would keep his job.

French President Francois Hollande is due to meet Interior Minister Manuel Valls on Monday morning, and later Mr Ayrault.

Mr Hollande will also make an address, "probably televised", later on Monday, Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll told French radio.

The Socialists were said to have lost 155 towns of more than 9,000 inhabitants, Mr Valls said late on Sunday.

Turnout in Sunday's second-round vote was low, which was bad news for Mr Hollande's Socialists as it was their supporters who were not voting, BBC Paris correspondent Hugh Schofield reports.

What the French papers say

"Punishment" - so reads the front-page headline in the Liberation newspaper, which says that for Mr Hollande, "the miracle didn't happen". It adds: "The second round of the local elections confirmed the first and the voters' distrust of those in power."

"Condemned to change", says Le Parisien's headline. "Of course, a reshuffle is on everyone's mind," the paper says. "We have a government team that is failing. A number of senior figures of the majority themselves are asking that people be changed, that the government changes."

"The blue tsunami engulfs Hollande" is Le Figaro's front-page headline. It adds: "[This defeat] sanctions the failure of a policy that has failed spectacularly in economic matters... but also failed to keep its founding promise of appeasing the country and reconciling the French."

Le Monde says Mr Hollande "is paying a brutal - but logical - price for a failed beginning of term, not supported by a clear and clearly explained project..." It continues: "The only responsible outcome that awaits Francois Hollande is to implement and then amplify reforms to ensure economic recovery. Whichever government team he surrounds himself with."

Marine Le Pen's National Front won control of 11 towns of more than 9,000 inhabitants.

The party has also captured the 7th district of Marseille, France's second largest city. The district has a population of about 150,000, which makes it the party's biggest win.

The centre-right UMP was said to have captured a number of key cities, including Toulouse, Quimper, Limoges, Saint-Etienne, Reims, Roubaix and Tourcoing.

The Socialists retained control of Paris, with their candidate Anne Hidalgo due to become the capital's first female mayor.

"I am the first woman to be mayor of Paris," she said.

"I am aware of the challenge that represents... I will be the mayor of all Parisians, male and female, without exception."

Her victory against her UMP rival was seen as a consolation for the governing party on a night of setbacks.

Voters were choosing councillors and mayors in more than 36,000 municipalities. FN candidates had won through to the second round in some 200 places.

The FN is widely expected to do well in the European Parliament elections in May.

Anne Hidalgo Anne Hidalgo's likely victory in Paris was seen as consolation for the Socialists on a bad election night
Marine Le Pen in Henin-Beaumont on 31 March Marine Le Pen says her party has arrived as a "major independent force"

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