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French regional election campaign opens

PARIS, March 8 (AFP) – The official campaign got underway Monday for this month’s regional elections in France, a key mid-term test for the centre-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Some 42 million people have the right to take part in the two-round election on March 21 and 28 to choose assemblies for the country’s 26 regions – 22 in metropolitan France, plus Reunion in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique and Guyana in South America.

Results will be scrutinised to see how much of a punishment vote there is against Raffarin’s two-year-old government, but also if the Socialist party (PS) has got over its battering in 2002 polls, and whether the parties of extreme left and right can continue to advance.

The National Front (FN) of the far-right veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen has high hopes of building on its leader’s smashing first round breakthrough in the 2002 presidential race, and is campaigning strongly on its trusted themes of establishment corruption and crime.

The party should win the ten percent of votes cast necessary to qualify for round two in several regions, and believes that three or four – such as the Provence region around Marseille and Nice – are within its grasp if the vote is split three ways on March 28.

However Le Pen’s disqualification from leading the FN list in Provence – for failing to prove he paid tax there – has taken some of the momentum out of its campaign, especially as doubt remains whether he did not deliberately scupper his own candidacy recognising that he was sure to lose.

Interest has shifted to his daughter Marine, who hopes to score well in the Paris region though she has no hope of winning.

On the far left an unwonted alliance between long-standing Trotskyist rivals the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and Workers’ Struggle (LO) hopes to entrench itself as an alternative recourse for left-wingers still disillusioned with the PS and its former allies the Communists and Greens.

In the 2002 presidential elections the two parties’ leaders Olivier Besancenot and Arlette Laguiller together won nearly ten percent of the first round vote.

A high level of abstention is expected in this month’s vote, not least because the role of regional councils is little understood, and this should favour the extreme parties as their supporters tend to be the most committed, analysts said.

Aware that he risks bearing the brunt for a sluggish economy, rumbling public sector disputes as well as the recent corruption verdict against former prime minister Alain Juppe, Raffarin has tried to play down the national importance of the elections – earning accusations from Socialist leader Francois Hollande that he is encouraging abstention.

However Hollande, who took over from former prime minister Lionel Jospin in 2002, is himself under pressure, criticised for failing to galvanise the party and at risk of eclipse behind two heavyweights in line for the 2007 presidential race, Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Apart from this June’s European elections, the regional vote is the last nationwide test before 2007, when the mandates of both the government and President Jacques Chirac come to an end.

The French regions were created in 1982 as part of decentralisation reforms introduced by the late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand. They have some powers over the local economy and transport that are being increased by Raffarin’s government.

Since the last elections in 1998 15 departments are controlled by the right and ten by the left. Martinique has an independent regional president.

Also being elected this month are council members in France’s 100 departments, who have limited responsibilities for sports, culture and education – though these too are being extended.


                                                              Subject: France news