France’s Sarkozy, fallen from his pedestal, faces drubbing in regional election

By Angela Charlton, AP
Thursday, March 11, 2010

France’s Sarkozy faces whipping in regional vote

PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy is looking politically lonely in his presidential palace.

Voters hit by France’s worst recession since World War II are fearing for their jobs, and are worried and conflicted about how Islamic veils and immigrant culture fit in their nation today.

They get a chance to voice their frustration in an election starting Sunday that is likely to leave opposition Socialists in charge of nearly every regional government in France. The left is even dreaming of a “grand slam”: control over all 26 regions.

The usually confident and charismatic Sarkozy, though he’s not on the ballot, is likely to emerge the big loser in this vote, halfway through a presidential term he vowed would transform his country into an economic powerhouse.

Sarkozy “thought he could do anything at any moment, all the time, and he figured out that it is not true,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of Europe Ecologie, a green-minded party shaping up to be the decisive third force in the regional elections.

The landscape is already bleak for Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party going into the vote. The president’s approval ratings are below 40 percent, and Socialists secured a stunning 20 of 22 regions on mainland France in the last elections in 2004.

This time, the UMP had been hoping to win a few regions back, but polls and electoral math suggest it will fail.

This means the opposition will maintain influence over regional politics and their budgets.

Voters have used all past regional elections to punish the party in power. Plus, Sarkozy’s supporters are showing little interest in the campaign, according to polls. So those voters who do show up are likely to do so to express discontent with what he’s doing — or not doing — for France.

“Employment is the No. 1 issue,” said Jerome Fourquet of the Ifop polling agency. Joblessness is at its highest level in a decade, over 10 percent, and the effects of recession are still pinching industries from car making to hotels.

Purchasing power, which Sarkozy promised to boost when he was elected in 2007, “has not been erased from the notebook of grievances of French people,” Fourquet said. “We see the multiplication of social conflicts,” such as workers locking up managers to protest layoffs.

Another big factor may be French voters’ awakening concern about global warming.

In Sunday’s first round voting, polls indicate that candidates from Sarkozy’s UMP would take an overall lead nationwide, followed by the Socialists and Europe Ecologie, whose popularity has grown over the past year on its pledges to take better care of the environment.

In the decisive runoff March 21, however, the Socialists and Europe Ecologie and smaller leftist parties are expected to join forces in some regions, lifting the left to a major triumph.

A celebratory mood infused Europe Ecologie’s last major rally Wednesday night. “Without us, the Socialists won’t win any region,” Cohn-Bendit said.

The kingmaker role in past regional elections had fallen to the far right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, now running in what may be his last election.

Le Pen’s influence has deflated in recent years, and polls predict his party will come in fourth overall. His charismatic daughter Marine has made waves during the campaign and pollsters say there could be surprises.

One of the party’s posters shows a woman in a face-concealing Islamic veil — which Sarkozy’s government is moving to ban — and minarets made to look like missiles, and reads “No to Islamism!”

In two regions, voters can choose “No Minarets” parties. The parties, with marginal public support, are in the regions of Lorraine and Franche-Comte in the east, near Switzerland, where a referendum last year paved the way for voters to veto new minarets.

France’s several million-strong Muslim population is western Europe’s largest, but the government has struggled with integrating them.

Sarkozy waded into the regional elections campaign in November, just as the government launched nationwide debates on what it means to be French. The identity debates sometimes descended into hostile, racist exercises that turned off many mainstream voters.

The conservatives worsened their plight when they called a Socialist candidate a “criminal.” Candidate Ali Soumare, who is black and from a poor neighborhood that saw riots in 2007 by disenfranchised youth angry at police, filed legal complaints for defamation. He was convicted for a 1999 theft.

Despite headline-grabbing events, however, the question of identity is not driving most voters’ decisions.

“I don’t think French people, every morning when they wake up, wonder about what it means to be French. However, there is a subject that haunts the political debate and not solely in France, it is the place of Islam and the visibility of Islam in French society,” Fourquet said.

The campaign issues are mainly local. Candidate Chantal Jouanno, the government’s junior minister for ecology, suggested introducing a toll for driving in Paris. Candidates in the Pays de la Loire region are campaigning to keep the shipbuilding business afloat.

Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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