Socialists, far-right triumphin French regional elections
PARIS, March 21 (AFP) - France's centre-right government paid the price for high unemployment and its policies of public sector reform Sunday, suffering a first-round defeat in regional elections that saw a surge in support for the Socialists and a record score for the far-right.
The Socialist opposition with its Communist and Green party allies won 40.5 percent of the national vote, against 34 percent for the ruling coalition led by President Jacques Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, according to exit polls.
The far-right National Front (FN) under the veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen won around 17 percent of the vote – its largest ever score in the first round of a national election and enough to ensure it qualifies for the second round in most of France’s 22 metropolitan regions.
Some 42 million voters are choosing assemblies in France’s 26 regions – four of them overseas – and replacing half the membership of councils in the country’s 100 departments, or counties. Parties need to achieve 10 percent of the first-round vote to make it to the runoff on March 28.
Definitive results in each region will determine the parties’ strength going into round two, but most will see a three-way fight between the UMP, the PS and the FN. The far-left could qualify in some regions.
Turnout was higher than expected at an estimated 61.5 percent. Opinion polls last week suggested there was little interest in the election and there were fears that as few as one voter in two would bother to turn out.
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said he would “take into account the message” of the elections and he called on the French to “rally together” for round two.
“In the period we have been through – especially after the end of economic growth – we have had to act with courage and determination to reestablish republican authority and hasten the return of growth,” he said.
The government is banking on the hope that the first round of two-round elections is customarily used by French voters to express their discontent and that many of its supporters who failed to turn out Sunday will do so in a week.
“This is a rejection of the government’s policies.., a rejection of their effects in terms of employment, public services, education, research. In short the French wanted to deliver a serious warning,” said Socialist party leader Francois Hollande.
“The vote for the National Front is no longer a protest vote but a vote of conviction,” said Le Pen’s daughter Marine, who is leading the FN’s campaign in the Ile de France region around Paris.
Recent opinion polls showed that as many as seven out of 10 voters want to show their unhappiness with a government lumbered with an underperforming economy, a series of public sector protests, 9.5 percent unemployment and a sense of national pessimism made more acute by fears of Islamist terrorism.
A renewed rebuff for the government in the second round leading to the loss of many of the 14 regions that it now holds in metropolitan France would hasten calls for a cabinet reshuffle, and even the replacement of Raffarin, commentators said.
Introduced in 1982 as part of a decentralisation programme by the Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, the regions have limited powers over high schools, culture, professional training and the enviroment.
Sunday’s results conveyed a message of hope for the PS, which many said had failed to recover fully from its thrashing at the 2002 presidential and legislative elections.
For the FN, the vote marked an advance on its 15.4 percent at the 1998 regional elections and the 16.86 percent won by Le Pen in the first round of the 2002 race. In the second round Le Pen won 17.8 percent when he ran against Chirac.
The party, which campaigned on its tested themes of tax, corruption, Europe and immigration, was aided by the recent conviction for illegal party funding of former prime minister Alain Juppe, the debate over the Islamic headscarf in schools and the Madrid bombings on March 11.
Subject: France news