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French elections a blow for Sarkozy's conservatives

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The Socialists won back city halls in 38 cities with populations of 20,000 or more, nearly making up for the 40 cities they lost in the last municipal elections in 2001. They held on to Paris, where Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë was assured of a second term, and they picked up the trophies of Strasbourg and Toulouse.

The one bright spot for the right was that it held onto the hotly contested city of Marseille, the second-largest in France and a traditional left-wing stronghold.

The results were not unexpected, given the precipitous drop in Sarkozy's popularity this year. While he said he retains his reforming zeal, he has already started to backpedal from his ambitious plans to deregulate the economy and reduce the government's size.

The local elections do not change the overall balance of power. Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party still controls the National Assembly and the Senate. But now that the Socialist Party has shed its losing image from their defeat in parliamentary elections last year, it could mount a more coherent resistance. And the president's now-sobered allies in parliament may be less eager to take on confrontational issues.

The influential French newspaper Le Monde predicted the government will be forced to compromise with the opposition. "Voters have given the left a majority in local governments, while simultaneously imposing a sort of 'cohabitation' on the parliamentary majority," it editorialized on Monday.

Some conservatives tried to cast the results as a simple political correction or a tough-love message from voters to speed up reforms.

"Yes, it's a defeat," said Jean-François Copé, the UMP majority leader in the National Assembly. But he read it as the unhappy conjunction of "malcontents" on the left and right-wing voters "impatient" for faster change.

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