By ANGELA CHARLTON
2010-03-15 04:56 AM
Many voters blame Sarkozy and the governing conservatives for failing to protect jobs amid France's worst economic downturn since World War II, and for not keeping their promise to make the country prosper in the face of growing global competition.
With more than 81 percent of votes counted, candidates from the Socialist and other leftist parties won 53.6 percent of the overall vote, according to the Interior Ministry.
Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and others on the right have 39.6 percent. The far right National Front did better than pollsters predicted and had the possibility of coming in third nationwide, with 11.7 percent, closely followed by green-minded party Europe Ecologie with 11 percent, according to the ministry.
The first-round results suggest the Socialists and their allies will win control of the overwhelming majority of France's 26 regions. The Socialists already run 20 of the 22 regions on the French mainland after trouncing conservatives in the last elections in 2004.
Sarkozy remained silent Sunday night, leaving comment from the government's top echelon to Prime Minister Francois Fillon. He remained combative, saying "it's not over. Everything is open" before the decisive runoff election March 21.
Fillon urged voters who skipped the first round _ official turnout was 48 percent, one of the lowest in modern French history _ to come out for the second round, "at a moment when the economic and financial crisis demands sang-froid, courage and unity."
Socialist leader Martine Aubry, whose party has long suffered from divisions and struggled to mobilize voters, said, "This result is encouraging for us."
Aubry said she was pleased to see the good results for the Socialist's leftist partners. "We have done beautiful things together," she said.
The vote is seen by many as a referendum on Sarkozy's 2 1/2 years in power. Sarkozy's approval ratings down are below 40 percent and voters are fearful over unemployment, which is still rising and factory closures that have prompted strikes and "boss-nappings."
France's struggle to integrate its millions of Muslims has also come to the fore in the campaign for 1,880 seats on regional governments in mainland France and in overseas regions from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.
National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen spoke on national television holding up a poster that says "No to Islamism" and saying that his National Front Party is the only one that can overcome the crisis in the country.
It's a worrying moment ... The Front National is back at a level not seen in years," said Francois Bayrou, former presidential candidate and head of the centrist MoDem party.
Sunday's first-round voting gives an idea of voters' sentiments, though the makeup of most regional governments will only be determined by the runoff election on March 21.
In that second round, the Europe-Ecologie party is likely to ally with the Socialists in many regions.
"The left can win all of the regions," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leading member of Europe Ecologie.
"Europe Ecologie is the third political force," in France, Cohn-Bendit said. It has frayed a "tremendous path," he said.
Associated Press writer Deborah Seward contributed to this report.