Q+A: Election defeat poses problems for Sarkozy

PARIS Sun Mar 21, 2010 6:31pm EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy suffered a bruising defeat in local elections on Sunday, with his center-right allies winning power in just one of France's 22 mainland regions.

The Socialist party and its allies took some 54 percent of the vote at a national level, with Sarkozy's bloc winning just 36 percent in one of the right's worst showings in an election in more than half a century.

Here are some of the issues thrown up by the vote:

WHY DID THE Center-RIGHT LOSE SO BADLY?

The weak economy and rising unemployment weighed heavily. Assertions by ministers that the situation was worse elsewhere in Europe cut no ice. A string of controversies, including a failed bid to hand a big job to Sarkozy's youthful son, also hurt. But local issues played a part, with voters clearly liking the way Socialists had run most of their regions since 2004.

DOES THE REGIONAL ELECTION BODE ILL FOR SARKOZY IN 2012?

It is important to remember that the Socialists triumphed in the 2004 regional vote, taking 20 out of 22 regions, but slumped to defeat in 2007 presidential and parliamentary ballots. This election has undoubtedly boosted the left but it still does not have an obvious candidate to challenge Sarkozy in 2012, and the party could still be shredded again by infighting. The economy should be stronger two years from now, which will also boost the center-right. But whereas, 18 months ago, it was all plain sailing for Sarkozy, the outlook is now much cloudier.

WILL SARKOZY CHANGE HIS CABINET TO REGAIN THE INITIATIVE?

Following previous election debacles, presidents have shaken up their governments, shifting blame for defeat onto ministers. Sarkozy has appeared to rule out big changes this time around and Prime Minister Francois Fillon will keep his job. However, late on Sunday sources said a planned "technical" reshuffle might turn out to be more sweeping than initially expected. Among possible victims are Towns Minister Fadela Amara and Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot. Labour Minister Xavier Darcos, who fared badly in Sunday's vote, may lose oversight of a looming pensions reform, with the creation of a separate pensions minister a possibility. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, often viewed as vulnerable, will probably stay in place ... for now. If he does lose his job, Economy Minister Christine Lagarde is often touted as a possible replacement.

WILL SARKOZY BE FORCED TO RE-THINK HIS REFORM AGENDA?

While ministers all conceded defeat on Sunday, they also all vowed to push ahead with reforms -- namely an overhaul of the costly pensions system and new rules for the justice system. However, the strength of the leftist vote looks certain to fuel opposition, especially if the government tries to raise the retirement age above 60. France's main labor union has already called for nationwide demonstrations on Tuesday to protest about wages and pensions. Sarkozy takes the chair of the G8 and G20 in 2011 and he will not want his time at the helm to be wrecked by major protests against his policies. He has already signaled a pause in reforms for the second half of next year, so the brakes are already about to be applied.

WHERE DOES THE VOTE LEAVE SOCIALIST LEADER MARTINE AUBRY?

Aubry, the architect of France's 35-hour work week, had a terrible first year in charge of the Socialists, so this victory will boost her standing and strengthen efforts to end internal party feuds. It also makes her a credible party candidate for the 2012 presidential election -- but by no means the only one. Segolene Royal, the party's 2007 candidate, did better than any other Socialist on Sunday, holding onto her western region with more than 60 percent of the vote. Other party grandees, such as Francois Hollande and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, are also potential candidates, meaning the unity seen in this election campaign might be short-lived.

HAS THE FAR-RIGHT NATIONAL FRONT REDISCOVERED ITS TOUCH?

After disastrous 2007 and 2009 elections, Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front party reconnected with its electorate this month. Le Pen and his daughter Marine each won some 22 percent of the vote in their respective races in the far south and far north of France, showing both the enduring strength of the Le Pen brand and the broad appeal of their party. This will alarm Sarkozy, who believed he had neutralized the far-right with his hardline security and immigration policies. However, the National Front may struggle come 2012. It has very little money and could face a leadership tussle, as Jean-Marie Le Pen, 81, is expected to retire from frontline politics soon.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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