Unpopular Sarkozy takes a hit in regional vote

PARIS, March 15, 2010 (AFP) - President Nicolas Sarkozy's party licked its wounds Monday after a first round battering in French regional elections that saw the resurgence of the far-right National Front.

Results showed the opposition Socialists were set to crush the governing UMP party this coming Sunday in round two of the vote, the last major ballot held ahead of the 2012 presidential vote.

General Secretary of the governing UMP party Xavier Bertrand delivers a speech on March 14, 2010 in Paris after the first round of France's regional elections. AFP photo

In the vote seen a key test of Sarkozy's popularity, the Socialists picked up 29.48 percent in the first round in the 22 regions on the mainland and Corsica, ahead of the president's UMP party with 26.18 percent, results from the interior ministry showed.

The Socialists also led in the four overseas territories.

The outcome was seen as punishment for Sarkozy's party meted out by voters still reeling from the global economic slowdown that has sent French unemployment soaring to its highest level in a decade.

Sarkozy made no comment, but his Prime Minister Francois Fillon pointed to the low turnout and urged party backers to mobilise and draw disenchanted voters to the polling stations on Sunday.

The pro-government Figaro newspaper said the right-wing UMP had "eight days to avoid a debacle" by convincing voters who stayed away in the first round to cast their ballots in the decisive runoff.

Turnout hit a record low, with more than half of the 44 million eligible voters staying away, far more than in the last regional vote in 2004. The abstention rate hit 53.65 percent, according to the interior ministry.

The Socialists moved to forge alliances with smaller parties ahead of round two and were likely to garner backing from the Europe Ecologie green party, that picked up a solid 12.5 percent of the vote.

The far-right National Front led by firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen made a surprise showing with 12 percent of the vote, taking its anti-immigrant message into round two in twelve regions across France.

The vote came amid social tensions after the government's public debate on national identity raised racial sensitivities and has been widely slammed as a divisive project that stigmatises immigrants.

Le Pen appeared jubilant on national television late Sunday, holding up a poster banned by a court that read "No to Islamism" and declaring that his party's future was bright.

"The National Front was declared beaten, dead, buried by the president," Le Pen said. "This shows that it is still a national force, and probably destined to become greater and greater."

The vote provided Socialist leader Martine Aubry with a boost to her credibility to lead the deeply divided party, which is set to hold primaries to choose a presidential candidate next year.

But polls show former Socialist finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, ranks as the left's best hope of beating Sarkozy.

Nearly three years into his mandate, Sarkozy is struggling with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and commentators agree he no longer looks unbeatable in 2012.

The regional elections are the first held in France since a year-long recession sent unemployment soaring to nearly 10 percent, with about three million people now out of a job.

Sarkozy has sought to downplay the significance of the vote, saying there will be no major government reshuffle even if the 21 members of his cabinet who were on the ballot are defeated.

The 55-year-old leader was elected on a mandate to rev up France's sluggish economy and bring unemployment down to five percent, but the worst recession since World War II has forced him to change tack.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been destroyed in France and Sarkozy has poured billions of euros in state funds into quick job creation schemes to try to propel the economy into a full-blown recovery.

Two days before election day, Sarkozy raised the possibility of a "pause" in the reform drive that has been at the heart of his mandate, saying parliament should be given time to review the barrage of measures passed since 2007.

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