Socialists and allies scoop 54% of vote, say pollsters, but left fails to pull off 'grand slam' in regional elections
Lizzy Davies in Paris
The leader of France's reinvigorated Socialist party hailed an "unprecedented victory" for the left at the ballot box last night after voters dealt a crushing defeat to Nicolas Sarkozy's rightwing party in regional elections.
With almost all votes counted, official figures indicated that a leftwing alliance led by socialists and ecologists had won 54% of the nationwide ballot, leaving the president's beleaguered UMP party with just 35%.
Across mainland France, the left claimed victory in 21 of the 22 regions. The only chink of light for the UMP came in Alsace. Corsica, which in 2004 was retained by the UMP, fell to the left for the first time since 1984. A relative comeback by the far right Front National, which scored over 20% in two regions, added to the ruling party's woes.
Last night, as jubilant supporters gathered at the Socialist party's headquarters, party chief Martine Aubry said French voters had "punished" the government for policies which had failed to protect them from the economic downturn. Although France weathered the recession better than many other countries, unemployment has topped the symbolic bar of 10% and there is widespread anger over factory closures, decreased spending power and the "bling bling" President's perceived fiscal pandering to the rich.
"The French people have tonight given an unprecedented victory to the alliance of the left," said Aubry.
"[They have] expressed their rejection of the policies of the president and his government."
In the wake of elections whose first round last Sunday brought the worst results suffered by the UMP in years, the mood on the right was scarcely more forgiving. Although as head of state Sarkozy was not officially involved in the election, his unpopularity has been blamed for his party's dismal performance.
The vote was a "message of the French people ... to the president of the republic and to him alone", said one UMP member . Jean-Francois Copé , one of the president's most outspoken critics within the UMP, agreed. The results were "a real defeat" and the party must "go back to basics", he told France2 television.
Held over two rounds, the first of which gave a resounding victory to the PS and confirmed the green coalition Europe Ecologie as France's third political force, are the means by which French voters choose the councils and presidents governing the 26 regions.
However, as the vote came at a time when confidence in Sarkozy's much-touted reformist agenda is at rock bottom, it has been viewed by commentators as something of a referendum on his leadership.
UMP chiefs attempted to gloss over the party's defeat by insisting that low voter turn-out made drawing any conclusion from the poll impossible. But critics, even those within the party, have said the right must try to change its ways.
Writing on his blog last week, former prime minister Alain Juppé said the government needed to reflect on "the rhythm of reforms... and the way in which they can be better understood".
Last night a contrite Fillon said he acknowledged "his share of the blame" for the defeat, and said he would discuss it with the president at the Élysée this morning.
The president's adviser Claude Guéant said the expected reshuffle would consist of "small changes".