PARIS — If last weekend's first round of local elections was supposed to serve as a slap at President Nicolas Sarkozy and his center-right government, it didn't deliver quite the sting predicted by his opponents.
French voters swung left to the Socialist opposition, which won 48 percent of the vote in 36,000 city and village council contests. Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, won 40 percent; the rest went to centrists and other parties.
But polls showed that only 1 out of 5 voters surveyed said they used their ballot March 8 to rebuke Sarkozy's 10-month-old administration, which has been troubled by a flagging economy and questions about the president's personal conduct. And in more evidence that his government still has credibility, 13 of his government's 23 ministers running for local office were elected in the first round.
"Sarkozy has messed up his public image, and that certainly motivated the left in this campaign," said Phillipe Le Corre, a former adviser in a conservative government. "But the left didn't get a landslide, so the vote should be seen more as a warning than a sanction against his government."
As voters prepared to go to the polls again today for runoff elections, the usually ubiquitous Sarkozy made one public appearance, leaving the high-profile stumping for his majority party to Francois Fillon, his popular prime minister.
Sarkozy has remained mostly out of sight during the local campaigning after being politically damaged both by his handling of his personal life — a very public divorce last October and quickie remarriage 80 days later to a former model — and the slumping economy, which has stalled his pledge of a national renewal. His approval rating dipped to 33 percent at the beginning of the year and only recently edged up to 42 percent.
Pierre Giacommetti, a pollster and political strategist, said he expected the voting today to focus on local issues. "National importance is perhaps a bit involved in the first round, but the second round is all about local taxes and how voters feel about their quality of life. A mayor is a very important person in France, so the voters will focus now on what he's done."
In Evreux, a small city west of Paris, the incumbent mayor is counting on that.
The UMP's Jean-Pierre Nicolas has been involved in running Evreux since 2001, first as deputy and now as mayor. After decades of Communist rule and the deterioration of local services in the late 1990s, the new government repaved streets, spruced up parks and lowered taxes. But March 8, more than half the voters supported left-leaning candidates, leaving Nicolas with 37 percent and facing a runoff.
"I don't understand why people would support a return of the Communists when you see the condition they left the city in 2001," said Nicolas' spokesman Patrick Lage. "Maybe people feel nostalgic. … That makes me laugh. We found public facilities in such bad shape in 2001."
Lage attributed Nicolas' loss in the first round to a lower-than-usual turnout among conservatives. He speculated that some stayed home because they were "dissatisfied with our national policy."
During a radio debate last week, Nicolas expressed gratitude to those who did support him and addressed others who might have skipped the first round of voting: "I'd like to thank the people of Evreux who voted for us … and I'd like to tell them they should do it again (today) in a larger way in order for us to continue the work we started … and to avoid a return to communism."
French cities have a tradition of often changing camps from election to election. Paris and Lyon are expected to stay with Socialist leaders this time, but the stakes are high in southern cities such as Toulouse and Marseilles, where UMP mayors are facing stiff competition.
During his one appearance last week, Sarkozy went to talk about immigration in a town close to Marseilles, where the president won big during his election last May. "This is the third-largest city in France and symbolic for Sarkozy," Giacommetti said. "It would be bad for his party to lose there."