French election campaign heats up

15th March 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 15 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and his opponents ramped up the rhetoric on Monday, with less than a week to go before regional elections seen as a key mid-term test for the centre-right government.

PARIS, March 15 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and his opponents ramped up the rhetoric on Monday, with less than a week to go before regional elections seen as a key mid-term test for the centre-right government.

In a commentary piece published Monday in the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, Raffarin hit out at the Socialist Party (PS) for turning the two-round contest, set to take place on Sunday and March 28, into a national litmus test.

He said the issue at stake was to "conduct politics in a different way, and to get away from the traditional petitions and manipulations of the intelligent Mr (Jack) Lang," he said, referring to the former Socialist culture minister.

Some 42 million people are eligible to cast ballots to choose assemblies for France's 26 regions - 22 in metropolitan France, plus Reunion in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and French Guiana in South America.

Results will be analyzed to see how much of a punishment vote there is against Raffarin's two-year-old government, but also if the PS has got over its beating in 2002 polls, and whether far left and right parties can gain ground.

Raffarin has repeatedly tried to play down the national importance of the polls, as he is aware that he could bear the brunt of voter fury over a sluggish economy, rumbling public sector disputes and the recent corruption verdict against former prime minister Alain Juppe.

Lang, the campaign spokesman for the Socialists, shot back at Raffarin on Monday, saying his government "deserved a repudiation as bitter as that delivered by the Spaniards to the outgoing government there" on Sunday.

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, who said Spanish voters had struck out against a "lack of truth" from the conservative government of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, said such a protest vote in France should be based on "another form of concealment, concerning economic and social choices."

Raffarin retorted in his column that there was "no more backward-looking idea than to call for a national 'sanction' in regional elections."

Despite the war of words, both parties are aware that the campaign has sparked little public interest, and that the high abstention rate expected is likely to favor extreme parties, as analysts say their supporters tend to be the most ardent.

In the run-up to Sunday's first round, all of France's political parties, including Raffarin's Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), the Socialists and the far-right National Front (FN), have a jam-packed schedule of rallies.

The FN has high hopes of building on veteran leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's smashing first-round breakthrough in the 2002 presidential race, and is campaigning on its trusted themes of establishment corruption and crime.

The party should win the 10 percent of votes cast necessary to qualify for round two in several regions, and believes that three or four of them - such as the Provence region around Marseille and Nice - are within its grasp if the vote is split three ways on March 28.

However Le Pen's disqualification from leading the FN list in Provence - for failing to prove he paid tax there - has taken some of the momentum out of its campaign.

Interest has shifted to his daughter Marine, who hopes to score well in the Paris region though she has little hope of winning.

On the far left, an alliance between Trotskyist rivals, the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and Workers' Struggle (LO), hopes to entrench itself as an alternative for left-wingers still disillusioned with the PS and its former allies, the Communists and Greens.

Apart from this June's European elections, the regional vote is the last nationwide test before 2007, when the mandates of both the government and President Jacques Chirac come to an end.

Since the last elections in 1998, 15 departments are controlled by the right and 10 by the left. Martinique has an independent regional president.

© AFP

                                                              Subject: France news

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