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Security fears overshadow vote

Published on 19/03/2004

PARIS, March 19 (AFP) - French regional elections starting this weekend take place against a tense background, with security worries after the Madrid bombings adding new uncertainty over the outcome.

Officials said there is no specific threat to Sunday’s first round vote, but police are on high alert and the defence ministry has doubled to 1,500 the number of army personnel patrolling stations, airports and other public spaces.

General concern over Islamic-inspired terrorism was increased in France this week by a threatening letter addressed to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin warning of attacks unless the government repeals a law banning the Islamic headscarf from state schools.

The rail bombings in Madrid, which killed more than 200 people, took place three days before a general election in Spain – indicating an awareness on the part of the bombers of the importance of democratic consultations.

Supporters and opponents of Raffarin’s centre-right government both claimed that the fall-out from the attacks – whch indirectly led to the downfall of the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar – favours their side in Sunday’s vote.

“If there are any consequences, they can only be in our favour. The French government’s policy, based on truth and international legitimacy, has been reinforced,” said Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Aznar’s surprise defeat was largely attributed to a display of force by the majority of Spaniards who were against his decision to go to war with the US in Iraq, and who were angered by his government’s apparent attempt to cover up Al-Qaeda’s role in the bombings.

Supporters of President Jacques Chirac, who led the coalition of countries opposed to the war from the start, said the threat of terrorism also fostered a sense of national cohesion which would naturally favour his ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

However the opposition Socialists have accused the government of playing up the Islamic bomb warning – as well as a previous threat by a group called AZF to blow up French railways – for electoral purposes, and said it will backfire.

The party’s leader Francois Hollande said the victory of the Spanish Socialist Jose-Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was an “encouragement for the left,” and a sign that the UMP – which modelled itself when it was set up two years ago on Aznar’s Partido Popular – was vulnerable.

Opinion polls show that terrorism does not feature at the top of voters’ concerns in the regional elections, which take place over two rounds on consecutive Sundays. According to a CSA survey in La Tribune newspaper, it comes fourth behind employment, crime and health.

However commentators agreed that the prominence of Islamist terrorism as an issue was most likely to boost support for the far-right National Front (FN), which has long campaigned on the dangers of unrestricted immigration from north African countries.


                                                              Subject: France news