Outlook bleak for Sarkozy, polls suggest

Conservatives face trouncing in regional vote

Nicolas Sarkozy ‘thought he could do anything at any moment . . . and he figured out that it is not true,’ a rival says. Nicolas Sarkozy ‘thought he could do anything at any moment . . . and he figured out that it is not true,’ a rival says.
By Angela Charlton
Associated Press / March 12, 2010

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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 into their nation.

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 halfway through a 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. 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.

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 go to the polls are likely to do so to express discontent with what he’s doing — or not doing.

“Employment is the number one 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 industry.

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.

In Sunday’s first round of 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, Europe Ecologie, and smaller leftist parties are expected to join forces in some regions, lifting the left to a major triumph.

One of the Europe Ecologie’s posters shows a woman in an 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.

Despite headline-grabbing events, however, the campaign issues are mainly local.