PARIS, March 19 (AFP) – Cursed with an underperforming economy, high unemployment and a mood of national gloom, France’s centre-right government risks a major rebuff in regional elections that start Sunday, and the far-right National Front (FN) says it is confident of taking full advantage.
A resounding defeat in the two-round election for the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of President Jacques Chirac would lead to an early cabinet reshuffle, with pressure to replace Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin if the results are sufficiently severe.
And if the FN can improve its showing to 20 percent or more of the nationwide vote, it will not only qualify for the March 28 run-off in the majority of the country’s 22 metropolitan regions but also justify its claim to be established as France’s third political force.
Some 40 million voters are choosing councillors for 26 regional assemblies – including four in France’s overseas territories – as well as for councils in the country’s 100 departments, or counties.
Faced with a series of public sector protests – most recently by scientific researchers complaining about budget cuts – as well as a climate of anxiety over Islam-inspired terrorism, Raffarin’s two year-old government is prepared for a classic midterm punishment vote.
According to a poll for Le Monde newspaper, seven out of ten voters say they want to use the election to “express their unhappiness” with the government.
But polls show that the opposition Socialist party (PS) has yet to recover from its thrashing at 2002 presidential and parliamentary elections, and the major questions will be whether instead the extreme parties of left and right can reap the benefit – and how many people will bother to vote at all.
“What we will be looking out for is whether the public is going to give another boot to the system, and to what extent the malaise that displayed itself so spectacularly in 2002 is still current,” said a senior Paris-based diplomat from an EU member state.
Presidential elections in April 2002 stunned France when the FN’s veteran leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won through into second place, defeating the Socialist Lionel Jospin. In the first round, nearly 60 percent of the electorate either abstained or voted for the far-left or far-right.
Le Pen, who is 75, was disqualified from heading the FN’s regional list in its stronghold on the Mediterranean coast because of an irregularity over his tax status there, but he has campaigned energetically across the country with the slogan, “You liked April 21, 2002? You’ll love March 21, 2004.”
Analysts said the far-right has been helped by recent events, such as the conviction for illegal party funding of Chirac’s close aide former prime minister Alain Juppe, the national debate over the Islamic headscarf in schools and the bombings in Madrid on March 11.
A high abstention rate is also seen as favouring the FN because its voters tend to be more committed than those of other parties. Analysts say it could be as high as 50 percent, up from 42 percent at the last regional vote in 1998.
“All the factors are in place to give the FN a very high score: the economic and social crisis, tensions over salaries, anxieties linked to the enlargement of the EU, and the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of French society,” said political scientist Pascal Perrineau.
The FN is hoping to double the number of its councillors – 275 out of a total of 1880 in the 26 regions – though the chances of its actually taking control of any regions are tiny.
In the 1998 elections the centre-right won control of 14 of the metropolitan regions and the left took eight. In eight regional assemblies the FN held the balance of power and helped vote in council presidents of the centre-right, several of whom were forced to resign in the ensuing row.
The UMP has sought to avoid similar embarrassment this month by passing changes to the regional electoral system under which the list that comes first gets an automatic bonus of 25 percent of assembly seats, so that it should not need to strike alliances.
Among the key regions in this election are Raffarin’s home territory of Poitou-Charentes which could swing to the left; the Ile de France around Paris where Le Pen’s daughter Marine is leading a highly-publicised campaign; and the Socialist-controlled Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur which the centre-right has hopes of recapturing.
The French regions were created in 1982 as part of decentralisation reforms introduced by the late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand. Though Raffarin plans to add a little to their sphere of competence, they have nothing like the identity, powers or budget of regions in Spain or Germany.
Subject: France news