French left floors ruling rightin regional election knockout

28th March 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 28 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac suffered a new pasting at the polls Sunday, as the electorate punished his government's policies of public sector reform and defected massively to the Socialists (PS) in the second round of regional elections.

PARIS, March 28 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac suffered a new pasting at the polls Sunday, as the electorate punished his government's policies of public sector reform and defected massively to the Socialists (PS) in the second round of regional elections.

In what was seen as a key test for the president's two-year-old administration, his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party looked set to be almost wiped from the regional map, with the left taking control of at least 20 of the 22 regions in metropolitan France.

The result made a cabinet reshuffle in the coming days a virtual certainty, with the fate of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin hanging in the balance.

Speaking on national television, the prime minister conceded that the government had to heed the message from voters, but he said the policies of economic and social reform could not be halted.

"I am sure the French do not want a return to immobility. Reforms must be continued very simply because they are necessary," the prime minister said.

Initial official figures showed the UMP and its junior coalition partner the Union for French Democracy (UDF) getting 38 percent of the vote, against 50 percent for the Socialists and its Green and Communist allies. The far-right National Front (FN), which was fighting in 17 of the 22 metropolitan regions, took around 12 percent.

The result more than confirmed the outcome of last Sunday's first round of the election, in which the centre-right took 34 percent and trailed the left by only six percentage points. The far-right fell back from 16 percent in round one.

Turn-out was about 67 percent, indicating a high degree of voter motivation compared to previous regional elections.

"The electorate has justly pronounced a heavy rejection of the whole of Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government. They have rejected a policy which for two years has deepened inequalities, intensified social tensions and despised the weak," said PS leader Francois Hollande.

Raffarin's attempts to streamline parts of France's large public sector have provoked a wave of protests by groups including scientific researchers, lawyers, hospital staff and performing artists - while his aim of liberalising employment law has prompted the criticism that he sides with big business.

Chirac was likely to announce a cabinet reshuffle in the coming days, and informed comment before the weekend had it that Raffarin would survive if the regional defeat was containable - but go if it turned into a rout.

And the scale of the centre-right's losses suggested the defeat was worse than expected. Of 14 regions it held in metropolitan France at the last elections in 1998, it looked likely to lose all but two - Alsace on the German border and Corsica. Four regions in France's overseas territories were also vulnerable to the left.

Among the most embarrassing losses was Raffarin's home region of Poitou-Charentes on the Atlantic coast, where the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal - Hollande's partner - improved on her already overwhelming first round performance to take 55 percent of the vote.

More of a surprise was the defeat of the former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the mountainous Auvergne of central France, where he has served as regional president since 1986.

Hopes that the UMP would salvage the honours by taking back the important Ile-de-France region around Paris were dashed with exit polls giving 48 percent for the incumbent Socialist Jean-Paul Huchon against 42 percent to government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope.

The left seized on the victory as a sign of the political wheel turning after its disastrous showing at presidential and parliamentary elections in 2002. Hollande, who has been accused of weak leadership, was likely to see his position greatly strengthened inside the PS.

For Chirac the question was whether he decides to ride the electoral storm on the grounds - widely articulated by his ministers in between the two rounds - that reforming governments must expect midterm discontent, and that a regional rebuff is a relatively harmless way of drawing the public sting.

The impending reshuffle was likely to be closely scrutinised for signs of government determination to pursue unpopular reforms - or conversely of a more "social" complexion designed to accommodate the evident discontent.

"We must ask ourselves one question. Must we now abandon the road of transforming French society? I think not. Stopping the reforms - as the opposition is demanding - would be to condemn the country to immobility and regression," said UMP president, former prime minister Alain Juppe.

© AFP

                                         Subject: French news© AFP

                                         Subject: French news

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