French elections a blow for Sarkozy's conservatives

The opposition Socialists beat out the ruling UMP in many cities, prompting calls for the French president to modify his ambitious plans.

Jean-Philippe Arles/Reuters
Jubilant: Supporters celebrated Sunday night in the southwestern city of Toulouse after helping to fuel a Socialist resurgence in France. The party suffered setbacks in 2007.

The once omnipresent French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been lying low for weeks as his approval ratings tumbled. But his absence did not save his right-wing party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), from an embarrassing rout.

In closely watched local elections on Sunday, voters deserted the president's camp for the opposition Socialists. After a decade in the political wilderness and back-to-back national defeats, the French left returned with a roar, winning control of a majority of major metropolitan and regional assemblies.

Jubilant Socialist leaders immediately demanded a rollback of Mr. Sarkozy's economic reforms and an increase in public spending.

Ségolène Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in last year's presidential race but remains one of the Socialist Party's most high-profile members, called the results a "punishment" of the president's policies and a public censure of his governing style. Ms. Royal called on him to repeal tax cuts and work-incentives enacted last year.

Overall, the French right won 47.6 percent of the votes nationwide while the Socialists won 49.3 percent. Voter turnout, at 62 percent for city council races and 55 percent for regional assembly elections, was one of the lowest in years.

In televised remarks, Prime Minister François Fillon repeated the government's preelection mantra that the vote turned on local issues and was not a referendum on the president's tumultuous first nine months in office.

"It is inappropriate to draw national lessons from this vote," Mr. Fillon said. "And it should not be manipulated for partisan interests."

The Socialists won back city halls in 38 cities with populations of 20,000 or more, nearly making up for the 40 cities they lost in the last municipal elections in 2001. They held on to Paris, where Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë was assured of a second term, and they picked up the trophies of Strasbourg and Toulouse.

The one bright spot for the right was that it held onto the hotly contested city of Marseille, the second-largest in France and a traditional left-wing stronghold.

The results were not unexpected, given the precipitous drop in Sarkozy's popularity this year. While he said he retains his reforming zeal, he has already started to backpedal from his ambitious plans to deregulate the economy and reduce the government's size.

The local elections do not change the overall balance of power. Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party still controls the National Assembly and the Senate. But now that the Socialist Party has shed its losing image from their defeat in parliamentary elections last year, it could mount a more coherent resistance. And the president's now-sobered allies in parliament may be less eager to take on confrontational issues.

The influential French newspaper Le Monde predicted the government will be forced to compromise with the opposition. "Voters have given the left a majority in local governments, while simultaneously imposing a sort of 'cohabitation' on the parliamentary majority," it editorialized on Monday.

Some conservatives tried to cast the results as a simple political correction or a tough-love message from voters to speed up reforms.

"Yes, it's a defeat," said Jean-François Copé, the UMP majority leader in the National Assembly. But he read it as the unhappy conjunction of "malcontents" on the left and right-wing voters "impatient" for faster change.

An opinion poll published this weekend by the Ipsos-Dell institute lent some support to that interpretation. The survey found that quirks once considered Sarkozy's strength – his insistence that he would single-handedly solve the country's problems, for example – have come to be seen as liabilities. Most people surveyed said they wanted to see less of him.

While respondents criticized him as lacking the proper gravitas for a French president, they also continued to back his policies. Only 1 in 4 respondents wanted the president to abandon his reform program.

The Socialists also talked of reform, saying they took the local election results as a mandate to oppose Sarkozy's plans to increase the public's share of health care costs and give employers greater flexibility in hiring.

Although it appeared to have shed its loser image, the French left still has its own internal divisions to overcome before it can mount a substantial challenge. Many of its victories in the local elections came only after Socialist lists merged for the second round with the Greens and centrists.

The traditional core of the party wants to renew the 30-year-old strategy of uniting all the left-wing parties, from moderate Socialists to the antiglobalization activists and Communists. Ms. Royal, the former presidential candidate, leads another faction that sees the party's only future as a center-left coalition along the lines of other European Socialists.

The municipal elections left some doubt as to whether France has a viable centrist movement. Only last year, the centrist François Bayrou won third place, with nearly 19 percent of the national vote, in the first round of presidential elections. But his party, MoDem, won less than 2 percent of the votes cast nationwide in city hall races. On Sunday, Mr. Bayrou failed to get reelected as mayor of his hometown of Pau, in the southwest.

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