France vote sees left and right pile pressure on Sarkozy

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France's opposition Socialists decisively beat President Nicolas Sarkozy's party in local elections which also saw the far-right National Front on the up a year ahead of the 2012 presidential vote.

Officials from Sarkozy's right-ring UMP on Monday said they had got the message from voters the day after the Socialist Party (PS) won 36 percent in the second round of a poll to choose councillors in France's 100 departments.

That outstripped Sarkozy's UMP party on 20 percent and the far-right National Front (FN) on 12 percent, with Sarkozy's personal popularity at an all-time low.

"We must pay more attention to this trivialisation of the far-right vote," government spokesman Francois Baroin said, calling for an end to a divisive debate on France's secular identity and the role of Islam in society.

The UMP had been trying to show itself as tough on Islam, security and immigration, in a bid to draw right-wing voters away from the National Front, but Sunday's vote showed that the strategy had not worked.

The election was also marred by a low turnout, with only 46 percent of those eligible to vote bothering to do so, according to the partial results from the interior ministry.

Socialist leader Martine Aubry's speech to euphoric supporters gathered at the party headquarters in Paris, suggested the presidential campaign had already started.

"Today I am conscious of our duty of victory in 2012 for France and for the French," she told supporters.

The party will next week unveil fresh plans to get the country back on its feet, she announced.

"Our determination is total to show that another France is possible," she added.

Aubry and fellow leading Socialist Francois Hollande are seen as possible contenders for the Socialist candidacy for the presidency.

But opinion polls still suggest that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the current head of the International Monetary Fund, would be the strongest Socialist candidate, should he make a run.

Jean-Francois Cope, the head of the UMP, said the left had been far from making the gains it had hoped for. But he conceded: "We would have wished for better results.

Cope told Europe 1 radio on Monday that "we got the message (of) concern and questioning from many of our fellow citizens, which explains the FN vote and the fact that many didn't vote."

With almost all the results in, it was clear early Monday that the left, which already controls 58 departments across France to the 42 for the right, had picked up several more.

And while the far-right National Front did not break through in terms of seats won, its vote was up sharply.

The results in so far showed that it had increased its first-round score of 620,000 votes to more than 900,000 votes: 11.63 percent of the vote.

"People will have to reckon with the FN coming in first place in the forthcoming elections, presidential and legislative," its leader Marine Le Pen said.

"The redrawing of political life in France is under way," she said.

The results were not a protest vote, but a vote of confidence in the party, she argued: and one opinion poll suggested she might be right.

A poll published Sunday suggested Le Pen would qualify for the second and decisive round of voting in next year's presidential poll, eliminating Sarkozy in the first round.

Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party's former leader, made it through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, eliminating the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, before being roundly defeated by Jacques Chirac.

Another poll Monday suggested that the party had moved a step closer to being accepted as part of the political landscape.

More than one person in two -- 52 percent -- considered the FN should be considered as "a party like the others", said a poll conducted by BVA-Absoluce for Les Echos newspaper and France Info radio.

Forty-seven percent rejected the idea, but it was the first time that most respondents had agreed with that proposition, said the pollsters.

The party's economic policies had nevertheless failed to convince, the poll added: 82 percent of the 1,192 respondents rejected its proposal to pull out of the eurozone, with only 17 percent approving.

© 2011 AFP

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