French left beats Sarkozy's party in regional vote
Angela Charlton, Associated Press Writer – Sun Mar 21, 6:19 pm ET
PARIS – The long-flailing French left made a big-time comeback Sunday, crushing Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives in regional elections colored by voters' economic worries — and informally kicking off the 2012 presidential race.
Cheers resounded from Socialist Party headquarters as leftists swept races from the French Riviera to Paris. With 97 percent of ballots counted, the Socialists and their allies won 54 percent of the vote nationwide, while Sarkozy's UMP party had 35.3 percent, according to the Interior Ministry.
The results show what a rough road the dynamic but increasingly isolated Sarkozy has ahead of him between now and 2012. Nationwide strikes are planned Tuesday by some of those who punished his party Sunday: train drivers angry over pension reforms that are a pillar of his presidential policy, and teachers angry over job cuts. Meanwhile, he faces new challenges from a popular green movement and a reinvigorated extreme right.
Sunday's vote came close to the "grand slam" sweep of all 26 regions that 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.
"These elections show that the French are worried," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said. "I take my share of the responsibility." Fillon was to meet with Sarkozy first thing Monday to discuss the election results, but no major fallout was expected. 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.
Fillon blamed the recession for his party's bad showing, but warned that France can no longer finance its generous social benefits without cost-cutting and suggested reforms would continue. "We do not govern a great country like France according to the rhythm of local elections," he said.
He lamented the record low turnout in both Sunday's runoff — at 51 percent — and last week's first round, at 46 percent.
The conservatives' discomfort was evident. UMP chief Xavier Bertrand and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde were visibly grimacing on post-election talk shows.
For the left, Sunday's election may help rescue the Socialists from a spiral of decline, after years divided and drifting.
While supporters chanted "We have won! We have won!" outside Socialist Party headquarters, their leader Martine Aubry remained prudent in her newfound conqueror role.
"The French have spoken, they must be listened to," she said, adding "We take this victory with responsibility."
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 and other environmental issues.
The challenge now is for the left to keep those alliances from unraveling.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leading force behind Europe Ecologie, said the greens should remain a "strong political force" in their own right — but also stay friendly with the Socialists "so that the UMP can be beaten in 2012."
The far right National Front reversed its decline and won 9.5 percent of votes overall in the 12 regions where they made it into Sunday's runoff but in some regions topped 20 percent. Marine Le Pen, a possible successor to her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, said the National Front is back as a "major actor" on the French political stage.
Its score, after a campaign that included 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 and force them to work longer. Polls show they are also worried about the growing deficit.
Sunday's elections decided the leadership 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.
All France's past regional elections have favored the opposition. The Socialists bulldozed their way across France in the last vote in 2004, but performed even better this year.
The leader of the UMP in the lower house of parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, tried to look past Sunday's dismal results for his party.
"The next stage," he said, "is 2012."
Associated Press writers Deborah Seward and Fanny Dassie contributed to this report.