By Dave Clark

PARIS — France's left-wing opposition struck a blow against embattled centre-right leader President Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes for re-election Sunday, winning a historic victory in a senatorial vote.

The Socialist Party and its Communist and Green allies won enough seats to give the left control of the upper house for the first time in French history, a stepping stone towards a presidential win in seven months' time.

"Nicolas Sarkozy will go down in history as the president that lost the right its majority in the Senate," declared Francois Hollande, favourite to win the Socialist Party's nomination to run against Sarkozy next year.

"In a way it's like a premonition of what will happen in 2012," he said.

Sarkozy's prime minister, Francois Fillon, admitted the right had suffered from its divisions and that the left had made a "strong breakthrough".

"The moment of truth will come next spring. The battle begins tonight," Fillon said in a statement, calling on the right to unite behind Sarkozy's government in time to turn the tide before the late April vote.

Sarkozy's office released a brief statement "taking note" of the results, but the leader of his UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, admitted the election had been "a defeat" for the Senate's outgoing centre-right majority.

Unlike previous election nights, Sarkozy did not assemble ministers and senior advisors for post-match analysis, preferring to spend his evening at home. His wife, Carla Bruni, is due to give birth in the next few weeks.

Right-wing parties have controlled the Senate since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958, and Sunday's flip to the left could break the already weak momentum of Sarkozy's unannounced re-election drive.

Before the vote, outgoing speaker Gerard Larcher had admitted to AFP that if he was defeated by the left it would be a political "earthquake" and "the preparations for the presidential election would be singularly changed".

The historic Senate victory also opens the door to a possible Socialist hat-trick, given that opinion polls suggest the left will win next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

"For the first time, the National Assembly, the Senate and the president could be from the left, which would give them serious weight if they decided to modify the constitution," said political scientist Bruno Jeanbert.

The Senate is not chosen by universal suffrage but by a "super-electorate" of elected officials -- around 72,000 mayors, local and regional councillors, voting for figures on the basis of regional lists.

Larcher said before the vote that he was confident of maintaining at least a six- to 12-seat margin to win re-election to his post on October 1 when the new chamber meets.

Jean-Pierre Bel, the leader of socialist senators, now believes he has enough votes to unseat him, with the Socialists and their allies believing that they have a narrow majority.

Larcher did not initially admit defeat, however, and insisted he would remain his party's candidate for speaker, hoping to cobble together enough centrist votes to squeak through.

Meanwhile, the left-leaning mood in the country appeared to have already had political consequences, with Budget Minister Valerie Pecresse confirming the threshold for top rate income tax might be brought lower.

Sarkozy has attempted to play on his foreign policy credentials as the current leader of the G8 and G20 great power blocs and the main foreign champion of the Libyan revolution that toppled Moamer Kadhafi.

But whatever glory he may have picked up on the international stage has been drowned out at home by the implication of his closest allies in a series of high-level corruption and party-funding scandals.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains high and France's financial sector has found itself under attack on the markets, where traders fear its banks are overexposed to risky Greek and Italian debts.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.