French voters deliver stinging verdict on Sarkozy's first year· . President's party suffers losses in local elections · Socialists celebrate, but fail to claim Marseille prize Alasdair Sandford in Paris The Guardian, Monday March 17 2008 The French people's disenchantment with President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government was confirmed last night as the ruling UMP suffered significant losses in the final round of the local elections, just 10 months after his triumph in last year's presidential election. Socialists retained control of Paris and won a string of towns and cities from Sarkozy's centre-right party, including the key cities of Toulouse and Strasbourg. But they failed to win the biggest symbolic prize of the evening, France's third city of Marseille, which the right just managed to hold, saving itself from total humiliation in the nationwide vote. A survey published after the polls closed suggested the opposition Socialists and their allies had won 49.5%, compared to 47.5% of the vote for the centre-right. The former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius said after the "yellow card" of the first round last week, the result was a "red card for the government's policies". Last year's defeated presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, described it as a "vote of censure". The prime minister, François Fillon, said the result proved the electorate had high demands of the government, but promised its reform programme remained on course. "Transforming a big country like France takes longer than a few months," he added. If there was some consolation for the president, far-right voters he had won over last May did not appear to have jumped back into the arms of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Socialists' success came even though the party's future direction at national level remains unclear, following last year's defeats in presidential and parliamentary elections. They failed to make significant inroads into the hard left vote: although the Communist party was all but wiped off the map last year, it proved it was still a credible force locally, and several towns remain in communist hands. There was huge disappointment for the centrist François Bayrou, the man who briefly threatened to upset the Sarkozy-Royal duel last spring. He failed narrowly to win in his own backyard of Pau, and his new Modem party was largely squeezed across the country. The past few months have seen Sarkozy's popularity rating plunge from above 60% to under 40%. Although unemployment has fallen to its lowest level for more than two decades, a sense of gloom remains and the high cost of living has become the main concern for many French people. A major government reshuffle has been ruled out. Instead, there are signs that a change in presidential style is under way: more sober, less brash. The "President Bling-Bling" tag was in danger of sticking: the taste for luxury holidays, jewellery and the ostentatious public display of his newfound love had grated, particularly with older voters.