Sarkozy faces heavy defeat in French regional poll

Paris–French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party faces heavy losses in regional elections on Sunday that could affect the pace of reform as maneuvring begins before the 2012 presidential campaign.

The center-right suffered one of its worst losses in years in the first round of the ballot, with Sarkozy’s UMP party scoring just 26 percent as the Socialists took 29 percent and the broader left parties combined claimed some 50 percent.

High abstention levels, which saw more than half of voters stay at home, and a surge in support for the far-right National Front which won almost 12 percent underlined the gloomy message for the government before Sunday’s final runoff.

Fears about job losses, immigration and security, as well as resentment about issues such as bank bailouts and executive pay have all fed attacks on Sarkozy. The president’s popularity has dived since he won plaudits for his energetic handling of the financial crisis in 2008.

He has already promised a pause in reform next year and a heavy loss in the last midterm election before 2012 could make him more cautious about pushing potentially painful cuts in the big projects which remain in 2010.

The president is planning a major overhaul of the pensions system, including raising the retirement age, and he also needs to rein in France’s public deficit, which is expected to reach 8.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2010.

With the recovery after last year’s recession looking slow and bumpy, that could be more difficult if serious electoral losses undermine public support for change in the euro zone’s second biggest economy.

The powerful CGT union has already called for a day of protest over wages and pensions on Tuesday. Other groups, such as farmers, may also see a big defeat for the center-right as a opportunity to put pressure on the government.

The 26 regional councils, responsible for issues such as school buildings and local transport, have very little economic power and normally attract scant interest even inside France.

But the vote is being closely watched as a barometer of public opinion and the Socialists, who won 20 of the 22 mainland regions at the last equivalent election in 2004, are hoping to do even better this time.

Socialist leader Martine Aubry has established some sense of order in her chronically divided party since taking over late in 2008 and she has struck up an alliance for the second round of the election with a newly resurgent Green party.

Just as worrying for the government, there has been increasingly open criticism of the leadership from within the UMP, where some well-known party figures including former Prime Minister Alain Juppe have called for a change of course.

Earlier this month, Sarkozy dismissed suggestions of a major reshuffle but there was growing speculation last week that at least some of his ministers may lose their jobs after the vote.

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