Sarkozy faces first test at French local elections

French President Nicolas Sarkozy faces his first electoral test since coming to power last May when voters cast ballots on Sunday in local elections expected to deal a blow to his centre-right UMP party.

Sarkozy faces first test at French local elections
Sarkozy has suffered a dramatic fall in popularity since his election last year on a platform of economic renewal and a break with the policies of decades of past governments.

A personal style seen by many as brusque and flashy, widespread media coverage of his private life and marriage to former supermodel Carla Bruni and, above all, worries about the cost of living and the faltering economy have eroded support.

A poll by the Ifop institute on Tuesday put Sarkozy's personal approval ratings on 41 percent, down from 67 percent in May last year. By contrast, his understated prime minister, Francois Fillon, had a 66 percent approval.

Sarkozy has said his determination to pursue economic reform will not be shaken by the election and the government points to the popularity of Fillon as a sign that it has solid support.

But questions have been raised over whether severe losses could push Sarkozy off course.

"You can already hear the commentary from some people: 'Perhaps we've gone too fast?' 'Perhaps we've gone too far'," conservative daily Le Figaro said in an editorial that argued it would be a mistake for the right to see the election as a signal to change direction.

Personal defeat

More than 287,000 candidates are running in the cantonal and municipal elections over two weekends on March 9-16.

The president is not directly involved and most voters say local considerations will weigh most heavily when they decide on their mayors and municipal councilors.

But at the same time, a survey on Friday showed 50 percent of people believed that the loss of some of the big cities that polls suggest could be captured by the opposition Socialists would represent a personal defeat for the president.

The Socialists, split by internal wrangles since the defeat of their candidate Segolene Royal in the presidential election, have sensed their first chance to hit back at Sarkozy, although party leaders have warned supporters not to be complacent.

Bertrand Delanoe, the popular Socialist mayor of Paris, is expected to retain control of the capital and the left should keep other strongholds like Lyon, Lille and Rennes.

The Socialists and their allies also have a good chance of capturing several big cities held by the right, including Marseille, Toulouse and Strasbourg, which would allow them to claim highly symbolic victories.

The election could also create targets among the ranks of government ministers, although Sarkozy has ruled out an immediate reshuffle after the election.

Under the French system, ministers are appointed by the president but many seek election to parliament or local councils to create a political base.

Twenty two ministers and junior ministers are standing for local office and several, including Economy Minister Christine Lagarde are facing tough battles that could dent their image.

Reuters
Last Mod: 10 Mart 2008, 10:18
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