French President Nicolas Sarkozy was on Monday weighing up his options after his right wing UMP party suffered a crushing defeat in regional polls held on Sunday. With 99.6 per cent of ballots counted, the opposition Socialists and their allies had won 53.8 per cent of the vote nationwide, while Mr. Sarkozy's UMP party had 35.5 per cent, according to the Interior Ministry.

Although these are regional elections which do not directly impact the national legislature or the President, the extent of the defeat suffered by the ruling conservative coalition is being interpreted as a personal slap in the face for Mr. Sarkozy, who had sworn to wrest several regions from the socialists and their allies. He was the campaign's chief strategist and had pushed into service as many as 19 Cabinet Ministers most of whom lost.

“Given the extent of the defeat, heads are bound to roll,” political commentator Olivier Duhamel said in an interview. Mr. Sarkozy who on Monday morning met major figures from his own political family is expected to announce a ministerial reshuffle shortly.

The poll also saw the re-emergence of leftist and green forces after several years of infighting following a series of electoral defeats. The Socialist Party and its allies, including the Greens and the communists retained their hold on 23 of France's 26 regions.

The vote on Sunday also gave the signal that the unofficial race for the 2012 presidential elections had begun. So far it has been widely assumed that Mr. Sarkozy would be his party's only candidate to his own succession.

That assumption has been blown apart by these poll results. The President's own popularity ratings have plummeted and several of his own party men have begun to openly criticise him since his election two and a half years ago.

The former Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, who could not hide his glee at his rival's rout is expected to launch his own conservative party soon.

Mr. Sarkozy will have to think through his unpopular policies, change his personal style which has irritated many former supporters and re-connect with the poor and vulnerable sections of society if he is to regain voter confidence. A TNS-Sofres Logica poll released late on Sunday said 71 per cent of voters wanted the government to change its policies, while a CSA Opinion survey said 54 per cent wanted Mr. Sarkozy, who has been criticised for a hyperactive approach, to adopt a more presidential style.

After several years spent in the political wilderness the left wing opposition was able to get its act together and present a united front riding high on accusations that the government's policies were directly responsible for high unemployment, job losses and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

Mr. Sarkozy came to power promising to cut unemployment to five per cent.

But in the last two years over 6,00,000 jobs have been lost and unemployment now stands at over 10 per cent in the worst recession since WWII. Another worrying consequence of this vote was the huge comeback made by the anti-foreigner extreme right National Front party which polled over almost 10 per cent of the vote nationally (and won over 20 per cent on some regions). Abstention rates were also high with 50 per cent of voters staying away from the polls. The National Front's strong showing indicate that Mr. Sarkozy's tactics to woo extreme right voters by using the politics of fear over issues such as Islamic fundamentalism (his government plans to ban the burqa), immigration or high crime rates boomeranged in favour of the extreme right, generally seen as being more hard core on such issues.

Nationwide strikes are planned on Tuesday with rail workers, hospital staff, teachers, and even policemen planning to strike work over continued job cuts in the public sector.

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