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Sarkozy reviews options after French poll defeat

world Updated: Mar 22, 2010 14:00 IST

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will meet President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday to discuss the consequences of the ruling centre-right UMP party's heavy loss in regional elections at the weekend.

Fillon said on Sunday he accepted his share of the blame for one of the worst defeats for the centre-right in decades, as voters punished the government for the weak economy, growing unemployment and often incoherent policy presentation.

Although Fillon is not expected to offer his resignation, some ministers look certain to lose their jobs in what one senior official predicted would be a "technical reshuffle".

The UMP bloc was comprehensively beaten on Sunday, winning no more than three of France's 26 regions and taking only 35.4 percent of the vote compared with 54.1 percent for the Socialists and their allies, according to preliminary results.

The far-right National Front scored 9.4 percent of the national vote but took more than 22 percent in its two core regions in the north and south to underline the scale of the loss for the centre-right.

Fillon said on Sunday that the government would press ahead with reforms that include an overhaul of the pensions system, and would make jobs and economic growth an "absolute priority".

But the pressure for a change of course has been growing.

"The defeat of the right in the regional elections will mark a turning point in the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy," the conservative daily Le Figaro said in a front page editorial.

An unemployment rate of more than 10 percent, an uncertain economic outlook and worries over issues such as security and immigration hit the centre-right hard. All eight of Sarkozy's ministers who stood in the election lost.

The regional poll was the last ballot box test before the 2012 presidential election and the Socialists were looking for a boost to help party leader Martine Aubry overcome the chronic divisions that have plagued the left in the past.

With two years left in Sarkozy's term, Socialist officials avoided open expressions of triumph but Aubry, whose position at the head of the party has been strengthened, said the government had to heed the voters' message.

"Listening to what the French people have to say means a profound change in policies," she said.

The powerful CGT union has called for a day of action on Tuesday to step up opposition to plans including an increase in the retirement age as part of the pension reform.

Possibly more worrying for Sarkozy, there has been increasingly open questioning of his leadership from within the UMP, with many party stalwarts particularly angry at his policy of awarding important jobs to Socialists.

One of Sarkozy's key Socialist recruits, Immigration Minister Eric Besson, said he accepted some blame for the loss after leading a controversial debate on French national identity that was widely blamed for boosting the far right.

"I have my share in responsibility for this evening's results, that's absolutely clear," he told RTL radio.