Opposition Socialists in France defeat Sarkozy in regional voting

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France watched as his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, cast her ballot yesterday in Paris. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France watched as his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, cast her ballot yesterday in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)
By Angela Charlton
Associated Press / March 22, 2010

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PARIS — France’s opposition Socialists and their allies handily defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives in regional elections yesterday, according to partial official results after a vote that helps set the stage for the 2012 presidential race.

With 97 percent of ballots counted, the Socialists and their allies won 54 percent of the vote nationwide, while Sarkozy’s UMP party (Union for a Popular Majority) had 35.3 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. The far right National Front had about 10 percent.

The results came close to the grand slam the Socialists were hoping for. Official results showed the conservatives holding on to Alsace but losing control of Corsica. Those were the only two regions run by the right going into the vote, and two closely watched races.

Frustration over Sarkozy’s handling of the stumbling economy was high on many voters’ minds during yesterday’s runoff vote. Socialists and like-minded parties also dominated the first-round voting a week ago.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon, looking somber, acknowledged the conservatives’ defeat even before the partial official results were released.

“These elections show that the French are worried’’ about reforms to their pensions and other social protections, he said. He warned that the country can no longer finance France’s generous social system without reforms. “We do not govern a great country like France according to the rhythm of local elections.’’

The conservatives’ discomfort was evident. UMP chief Xavier Bertrand and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde were visibly grimacing on postelection talk shows.

The Socialists, after years divided and drifting, were buoyant, and looking ahead to the 2012 vote. “The French have spoken, they must be listened to,’’ said Socialist leader Martine Aubry.

“It is a huge success,’’ said her predecessor Francois Hollande. He warned, “We haven’t won the presidential elections.’’

Voter turnout was slightly above 50 percent — better than the 46 percent in the first round but still close to record lows for France.

The Socialists were boosted by alliances with far left parties and especially with Europe Ecologie, a grouping of green parties enjoying growing popularity amid voter concern about global warming.

The far right National Front enjoyed a comeback with the regional elections, with OpinionWay projecting an overall score of 17.5 percent in the 12 regions where they made it into yesterday’s runoff.

The party’s strongest showing came in the Riviera region, home to leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the Nord-Pas de Calais region where his daughter and possible successor Marine is an increasingly prominent voice.

That score, after a campaign that included National Front posters reading “No to Islamism,’’ reflected persistent French concerns about a growing Muslim population, immigration, and the country’s evolving national identity.

The economy, though, was the key issue.

Workers across the spectrum are angry over layoffs and worried that planned pension reforms could shrink their old-age income, but polls show they are also worried about the growing deficit. Nationwide strikes and demonstrations in at least 70 cities are planned for Tuesday, by train drivers, teachers and others.

The elections determine control of regional councils concerned with local issues. France has 26 regions, 22 counting the mainland and Corsica, as well as four overseas, from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.

The governing conservatives went into the voting weak. The Socialists bulldozed their way across France in the last regional elections in 2004.

Sarkozy will follow up the elections with a “modest reshuffle’’ of the government, his chief of staff Claude Gueant said in an interview with the Catholic daily La Croix.