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Raffarin tipped to go afterSocialists, far-right triumph

PARIS, March 22 (AFP) – As campaigning opened Monday for round two of France’s regional elections, President Jacques Chirac’s centre-right government faced an uphill struggle to overturn a first-round drubbing at the hands of a newly-confident Socialist party (PS).

With nearly all votes counted in the 22 regions of metropolitan France, official results showed that the PS with its Communist and Green party allies had reached 40 percent of the ballot, six points ahead of the governing coalition led by Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

 The far-right took 16.24 percent of the vote – nearly all of it for the National Front (FN) of 75 year-old veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen – a near-record performance that confirmed the party’s steady entrenchment as France’s third political force.

With the FN qualifying for next Sunday’s second round in at least 17 regions, the odds were stacked heavily against the UMP because in a three-way contest the right-wing vote will be split. Pollsters predicted the PS re-capturing several of the 14 regions that the centre-right now holds.

The elections for France’s regional assemblies – as well as for half the membership of council’s in the country’s 100 departments, or counties – are being seen as a key midterm test for the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin whose mandate lasts till 2007.

The first round result appeared to indicate widespread discontent with the government, which is lumbered with high unemployment, a flagging economy and a national mood of pessimism made more severe by anxieties over Islamic-inspired terrorism.

A series of state sector protests – by among others teachers, doctors, lawyers, performing artists and most recently scientific researchers – has also sapped support among an electorate that remains deeply committed to the notion of public service.

Press comment Monday universally interpreted the result as a punishment vote against the centre-right, with some papers betting on an early resignation for Raffarin as Chirac’s fall-guy in the debacle.

“As prime minister he is a man condemned, just as Edith Cresson was in 1992,” said the left-wing Liberation newspaper, referring to the resignation of France’s first woman prime minister after a disastrous showing for the Socialists in regional elections that year.

“The size of the punishment vote will require someone to carry the can after the second round to give the impression that the head of state has understood the message of the voters,” it said.

The PS, which was trounced at elections in 2002, saw Sunday’s results as a sign of hope after a long period of internal disarray, and a vote of confidence in its much-criticised leader Francois Hollande. Former prime minister Laurent Fabius said it was the “start of a springtime for the left.”

The FN narrowly missed the record 16.86 percent it won in the first round of the 2002 presidential race, when Le Pen famously beat the Socialist Lionel Jospin into second place. However it was the best ever score for the far-right in a non-presidential election, and disproved the theory that the FN only performs effectively as a vehicle for its leader.

“Quietly, without fuss and nearly everywhere the FN has managed to reach to within a few tenths of a percentage point the score of Jean-Marie Le Pen at the presidentials. It is a remarkable consolidation of its influence,” said the conservative daily Le Figaro.

The FN was widely seen as being helped by the national debate over the Islamic headscarf, the recent conviction for illegal party funding of Chirac’s aide Alain Juppe, as well as by the March 11 Madrid bombings.

To get through for next Sunday’s run-off parties had to win ten percent of the first round vote. The PS and the UMP will now enter alliances with smaller parties of left and right that failed to qualify in order to maximise their performance in round two.


                                                              Subject: France news