French local polls a painful test for Sarkozy

5th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

Nicolas Sarkozy faces a painful test of his presidency on Sunday as France votes in local elections.

   PARIS, March 5, 2008 - Battling a collapse in popularity, Nicolas
Sarkozy faces a painful test of his presidency on Sunday as France votes in
local elections cast as a referendum on his first 10 months in power.
   The opposition Socialist Party has urged voters to send a "warning shot" to
Sarkozy, whose approval rating has crumbled to 33 percent among voters angered
by his turbulent private life and failure to tackle a soaring cost of living.
   The president's right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) controls 55
percent of all towns of more than 30,000 inhabitants, after winning 23 from
the left in 2001. But the right is bracing to lose many of them back in the
vote taking place in two rounds this Sunday and a week later.
   The Socialists, in disarray after their third consecutive defeat last year
in presidential elections when Sarkozy trounced Segolene Royal, see this vote
as a badly-needed chance to boost their fortunes.
   They expect to cement their hold on Paris, where the mayor and rising star
of the left, Bertrand Delanoe, is credited with changing the face of the city,
with dozens of new bus lanes, a cheap bike rental scheme and a flagship annual
beach festival on the banks of the Seine.
   They are also expected to keep hold of France's second city Lyon.
   But the party is aiming for a headline-grabbing win in a symbolic big city:
the port of Marseille on the Mediterranean, the southwestern city of Toulouse
or Strasbourg in the east.
   "If any of those three cities falls to the left, then the election will
take on a national significance to Sarkozy's disadvantage," said Frederic Dabi
of the IFOP polling institute.
   French voters are choosing the mayors and local councillors of 36,000
towns, including 235 with more than 30,000 inhabitants, as well as filling
half of all local canton, or district seats on the country's 100 departmental
   Thirteen of Sarkozy's ministers are running for local office, mostly in
safe seats such as Justice Minister Rachida Dati in Paris' chic seventh
   Only Education Minister Xavier Darcos is facing a potential challenge, in
the southwestern city of Perigueux.
   Sarkozy's 21-year-old son Jean is also running in his father's political
stronghold, the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly, for a seat representing the town
on the Hauts-de-Seine departmental council.
   But while critics suggest Sarkozy's son will be enthroned thanks to his
father's influence, for most right-wing mayors the president's unpopularity
risks being a liability.
   Despite energetic efforts, Sarkozy has failed to stop his poll slide among
voters who backed his promise of reforms to fire up the economy, and feel let
down both in style and substance.
   The president's much-publicised divorce in October, followed by his
jet-setting romance and swift marriage to ex-supermodel Carla Bruni, gave
voters the impression he was neglecting their needs.
   "There is a real falling-out of love, a real defiance and even, for part of
the electorate, a kind of allergic reaction," said Dabi of the IFOP polling
   There has been talk of a government reshuffle if the UMP suffers big
losses: Sarkozy has warned he would "take the necessary measures" after the
   But recent reports suggest he may make changes to his own inner circle of
advisors instead.
   Experts on both right and left warn there is no guarantee the national
trend will translate directly into local election losses or gains.
   "The French people are not rejecting the right -- they are rejecting
Nicolas Sarkozy. They are not yet ready to turn back to the left," said
political analyst Dominique Reynie of Sciences Po university.
   In both camps, the big fear is of a low turnout, among right-wing voters
disenchanted with the president, and left-wingers too confident of victory.
   "We have got the wind in our sails, but to talk of a red wave, nothing is
less certain," a Socialist leader was quoted as saying in Le Parisien daily.
   Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand has admitted the UMP was "caught in a
headwind", urging Sarkozy's camp to rally behind him as "the only one capable
of successfully leading the country's transformation."
   And in the event of a defeat, said Bertrand, "we shall have to remember
this is only a municipal election. Nothing more."


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