Sarkozy's 'power women' struggle on the campaign trail
As the French president’s popularity continues to hit new lows, his political allies struggle to steer regional election campaign back on track.All four flash determined smiles and boast high-profile jobs in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, but a glitzy regional election campaign by France's "power women" is floundering.
The four are leading the charge for the right-wing UMP in the battleground greater Paris region, home to 11 million people and one of Europe's richest regions -- which has been under opposition rule for 12 years.
Led by the self-assured Valerie Pecresse, minister for higher education, Sarkozy's "Dream Team" has been deployed to railway stations and community halls to woo voters ahead of the first round of voting on Sunday.
"It's been a very tough campaign," Pecresse said this week after meeting supporters at her campaign headquarters, a barge anchored on the Seine river.
"People are telling us that life is hard," said the 42-year-old blonde former law professor. "There is a national context that is very difficult, and that fuels voter apathy, even in our own camp."
The two-round regional vote is the first held in France since a year-long recession sent unemployment soaring to its highest level in a decade.
The elections on 14 and 21 March are also seen as a key indicator of voters' views ahead of the 2012 presidential vote.
Pecresse, who beat two party heavyweights to head the UMP ticket in greater Paris, which is officially known as Ile de France, enlisted three other women to beef up her campaign including Chantal Jouanno, a national karate champion and junior environment minister.
She also picked Rama Yade, a 33-year-old former rights minister demoted by Sarkozy to junior sports minister last year, but who still ranks among the government's most popular ministers in the opinion polls.
Known by the hip acronym "NKM", Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the 36-year-old minister for the digital economy, rounds off what the press is calling the "charm foursome."
The choice of the four perky women, aged between 33 and 42, was part of a strategy to mount a serious challenge to 63-year-old Socialist Jean-Paul Huchon, the current regional chairman.
Dressed in a green parka, Pecresse turned up at Pauline Paulmier's farm in the Paris region this week to tell her that regional government should be doing more to help her struggling business.
Paulmier, a 54-year-old widow, said she feels lucky some months if she manages to pay all her bills.
"And I thought I had a hard job," Pecresse commiserated.
A string of blunders have dogged the Dream Team campaign and polls show the Socialists are likely to win yet another victory in Ile de France -- and also triumph in most of France's other 22 regions.
Pecresse ran into trouble in February when members of her party accused a Socialist rival of having a criminal record as a repeat offender.
The accusations were partly false and Pecresse was accused of failing to keep her team in line and ensuring that the campaign stayed clean.
Sarkozy's record-low approval ratings have forced him to stay away from the campaign trial, but the president summoned Pecresse and all of her UMP team to the Elysee last week for a dressing down.
"Valerie is leading the ticket. If you attack her, you attack me," Sarkozy told the gathering, according to one member present.
Jouanno, who on Sunday won her 13th title as national kata karate champion, was booed after she proposed that Paris' number 14 metro line should be fully automated to improve service. The line already is automated.
Polls show the UMP is headed for a heavy defeat in the two-round vote, with the economy and Sarkozy's unpopularity driving voters to the opposition. The Socialists currently hold 20 of the 22 regions.
AFP / Carole Landry / Expatica