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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 March, 2004, 22:00 GMT
Poll setback for French leaders
Protester with Raffarin
The government's reform plans sparked mass strikes
Exit polls from France's regional elections indicate the governing centre-right coalition has suffered a major setback.

The polls put the left-wing opposition 6% ahead of the parties in government.

They give the far-right National Front the same level of support as in the 2002 presidential elections.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said he would "take into account" the results, in polls that were seen as a mid-term test for the government.

Many voters were expected to reflect discontent with high unemployment and social reforms.

"I have listened to the French people," said Mr Raffarin in a short televised statement after polls closed on Sunday.

"Region by region... the message has been expressed. I will take it into account."

Voter apathy

He did not announce any changes to the unpopular economic reforms, or make reference to his own political future.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris says that if the trend is confirmed in the second round of voting next Sunday, Mr Raffarin's future could be in doubt.

Initial results combined with exit polls showed the centre-right had gained just 34% of the vote compared with the opposition Socialists on 40.5%.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin
Raffarin did not announce any changes to the unpopular reforms
The French government suffered significant losses in several key regions, says our correspondent.

Ahead of the vote, opinion surveys also suggested growing apathy with up to 50% of people saying they may not vote at all.

The elections, held every six years, are for the country's 22 regional councils. However the issues are national.

There is growing public discontent over a government perceived by many as unable to cut high and rising unemployment.

Reforms aimed at lowering the country's high social security costs have also proved deeply unpopular.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Caroline Wyatt
"The French prime minster has said he will listen to the voters' message"



SEE ALSO:
European press review
19 Mar 04  |  Europe
Country profile: France
08 Feb 04  |  Country profiles
Timeline: France
15 Feb 04  |  Country profiles



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