PARIS, France - Voters rebuffed French President Nicolas Sarkozy's party in local elections Sunday that saw the Socialists and the far right gain ground ahead of next year's presidential vote.
The Socialist Party (PS) collected 36 percent in the second round of a poll to choose councillors in France's 100 departments, according to official provisional results.
That outstripped Sarkozy's UMP party on 20 percent; and the far-right National Front (FN) on 12 percent.
But the vote was marred by a low turnout, with only 46 percent of those eligible to vote having done so, according to the partial results from the interior ministry.
Socialist leader Martine Aubry's speech to euphoric supporters gathered at the party headquarters in Paris, suggested the presidential campaign had already started.
"Today I am conscious of our duty of victory in 2012 for France and for the French," she told supporters.
The party would next week unveil fresh plans to get the country back on its feet, she announced.
"Our determination is total to show that another France is possible," she added.
For Francois Hollande, another leading Socialist, the writing was on the wall for the French president.
"The lesson I draw from this vote is that the Nicolas Sarkozy page has been turned. The people of France want a new time, a new cycle," he said.
Both Aubry and Hollande are seen as possible contenders for the Socialist candidacy for the presidency.
But opinion polls still suggest that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the current head of the International Monetary Fund, would be the strongest Socialist candidate, should he make a run.
Sarkozy's UMP party made the best of bad night.
"In a context rendered difficult by two years of crisis, the candidates of the right and the centre have resisted well," said Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
While the left might have made gains, the ruling party had not suffered as badly as some had forecast, he added.
Jean-Francois Cope, the head of the UMP said the left had been far from making the gains it had hoped for. But he conceded: "We would have wished for better results.
While the final results were still coming in, it was clear early Monday that the left, which already controls 58 departments across France to the 42 for the right, had picked up several more.
And while the far-right National Front did not break through in terms of seats won, its vote was up sharply.
The results in so far showed that it had increased its first-round score of 620,000 votes to more than 900,000 votes: 11.63 percent of the vote.
"People will have to reckon with the FN coming in first place in the forthcoming elections, presidential and legislative," Marine Le Pen said.
"The redrawing of political life in France is under way," she said.
The results were not a protest vote, but a vote of confidence in the party, she argued: and one opinion poll suggested she might be right.
One poll published Sunday suggested Marine Le Pen would qualify for the second and decisive round of voting in next year's presidential poll, eliminating Sarkozy in the first round.
Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party's former leader, made it through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, eliminating the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, before being roundly defeated by Jacques Chirac.