(dpa) - It took only 10 months and one electoral test for French President Nicolas Sarkozy to fall off the high horse which he rode into office.
After being handed a severe beating in Sunday's municipal elections, Sarkozy woke up Monday to the unfamiliar sound of criticism from his own ranks.
The deputy chairman of Sarkozy's own Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said the party "is too far to the right currently. The UMP must be more open to the centre."
Raffarin did not need to say that the party has been dragged to the right by its former head, Sarkozy.
UMP spokeswoman Nadine Morano, who was defeated in her race in the city of Toul, uttered the word that all other representatives of the conservative government have rejected in describing the results of Sunday's election: "punishment."
"I paid a small part of the electoral punishment (dealt out) on the national level," she said, a declaration that more than suggests that voters around the country were thinking of Sarkozy when casting their ballots.
And the head of the UMP group in the National Assembly, Jean-Francois Cope, directly criticized Sarkozy's unilateral manner of making policy.
"The lawmakers want to play a bigger part earlier in the reform process, to participate earlier in the government's decision-making," Cope said.
The message to Sarkozy is clear: Change.
The reason for its urgency is also apparent: After Sunday's run-off elections, the opposition Socialists control seven of the 10 largest cities in France, and 25 of the 37 cities with populations over 100,000.
France is now politically divided between a conservative government in Paris and municipalities and regions predominantly ruled by the Socialists and their left-wing allies, a situation the daily Le Monde called "a new form of cohabitation."
It remains to be seen what effect the defeat will have on the ambitious Sarkozy. Socialist Party head Francois Hollande demanded nothing less than capitulation.
Referring to a possible government shake-up as a result of the vote, Holland told RTL radio on Monday that he wanted "only one shake-up, that of the president's behaviour and of his policies."
He went on to suggest that Sunday's results empowered his party to become a counterweight to Sarkozy's reform propsals. "This was a local election which conferred national obligations on us," he said.
With less than four months to go before France assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union, it is difficult to envisage Sarkozy making wholesale changes to his government.
He and Prime Minister Francois Fillon have also said more than once that, regardless of the outcome of the vote, they will continue their reform programme.
But, plagued by plunging polls, Sarkozy has already changed his appearance and his manner. Gone are the designer sunglasses, jogging outfit and avalanche of media photographs with his spouse, Carla, that were part of his earlier style.
And, if media friendly to his administration are to be believed, the president will become more "presidential" in the way he governs - that is, he will resemble more and more the image of the traditional French president, a tradition with which he wanted to break.
French media have already reported that his personal spokesman, David Martinon, has been sacked, and the weekly press briefings he conducted - which imitated the briefings held by press spokesmen in Washington - will be scrapped.
Sarkozy is also expected to make more appearances in the provinces, with some cabinet meetings to be held outside of Paris.
It remains to be seen if these cosmetic changes will be enough to restore Sarkozy's standing with French voters. What he really needs is success on the economic front - especially in reversing the decline in purchasing power that is their number-one concern.
For in France, the secret of political success is no different than elsewhere, and it is best summed up by former US President Bill Clinton's campaign slogan: "It's the economy, stupid."