Sarkozy under pressure after 'punishing' local poll

18th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

Victorious left-wing leaders stepped up demands Monday for President Nicolas Sarkozy to make big changes in government.

   PARIS, March 18, 2008 - Victorious left-wing leaders stepped up
demands Monday for President Nicolas Sarkozy to make big changes in
government, after inflicting heavy losses on his right-wing camp in French
local elections.
   Sarkozy's UMP party lost dozens of towns to the opposition Socialists on
Sunday, including the prized cities Toulouse and Strasbourg, in a vote seen as
a "punishment" for the style and content of his first 10 months in power.
   The ruling right sought to play down the scale of its defeat, with Prime
Minister Francois Fillon attributing it to low turnout, at 62 percent, and
voter impatience with the pace of Sarkozy's reforms.
   But Socialist leader Francois Hollande called for the reforming president,
whose poll ratings have plunged more than 20 points since the start of the
year, to "heed the message" sent by French voters.
   "I expect a reshuffle of the president's behaviour and his policies,"
Hollande told RTL radio, calling for immediate measures to boost small
pensions and the minimum wage.
   The French press described the results as a "disaster", a "disavowal" or a
"rout" -- and a clear warning shot for the government.
   "Mister President: somebody needs to tell you this: you well and truly lost
this local election," wrote the left-wing Liberation. "The Sarkozy spell has
broken in the space of a few months."
   The Socialist Party took an estimated 49 percent of Sunday's vote, against
47.5 percent for the UMP.
   The left now controls 58 percent of towns with more than 30,000
inhabitants, after winning 40 from the right, including right-wing bastions
Metz and Reims, though Sarkozy's camp kept its grip on the second city of
   "Whichever way you look at the results: the Socialist Party and the
opposition has won the first mid-term poll since Nicolas Sarkozy's election," 
conceded the pro-government Le Figaro newspaper.
   "This will not go without political consequences. There is undoubtedly a
need to accelerate the pace of reforms."
   Sarkozy himself has signalled the results would lead to minor adjustments
in his communications teams, and the arrival of some new faces in government,
with an announcement expected on Tuesday.
   Pollsters attribute Sarkozy's ratings collapse to pessimism about the
economy coupled with perceptions that he is distracted by his personal life,
following his divorce and remarriage to the former supermodel Carla Bruni.
   Fewer than four in 10 voters now approve of his performance. Last July his
ratings stood at 67 percent.
   Aides have suggested an image makeover was in order for the 53-year-old
president, criticised for a brash style that has earned him the nickname "the
Bling-Bling president."
   But former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, deputy-head of the UMP,
said on LCI television that the government also had to "change tack on a
certain number of points".
   UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope also called on Europe 1 radio for "greater
clarity" in Sarkozy's reform programme, and for lawmakers to have a greater
say in shaping policy.
   Since coming to power, Sarkozy has eased rules governing France's 35-hour
work week, the shortest in Europe; cut pension benefits for some state
workers, which previous presidents tried and failed to do; and given
universities more autonomy.
   Unemployment has fallen to 7.5 percent, its lowest in two decades. But this
has not dispelled public gloom, with consumer confidence at a 21-year low.
   Despite their gains, the troubles of the rudderless Socialists were far
from over, as they brace for a bitter leadership showdown and struggle to
modernise their party, which has lost three presidential elections in a row.
   The triumphant reelection of Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe has boosted his
chances of taking over the Socialist Party's leadership from Sarkozy's
defeated rival Segolene Royal and of carrying its colours in the 2012
presidential race.


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