Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s centre-right president, took a battering last night in regional elections, with exit polls suggesting that the centre-left had won 54 per cent of the vote.
Mr Sarkozy escaped the humiliation of seeing a centre-left clean sweep of all 22 regions of France after the exit polls indicated his UMP party had retained control of Alsace, its last regional stronghold on the mainland. The centre-right was also poised to win in two of France’s overseas territories.
However, the scale of the centre-left’s expected victory over the UMP, which was estimated to have won only 36 per cent of the national vote, raises serious questions about Mr Sarkozy’s ability to win a second five-year term as head of state. The regional polls are the last national electoral test before the presidential election in 2012.
Mr Sarkozy has announced a “pause” in his reform programme, though not before 2011, and is expected to carry out a minor government reshuffle to contain disquiet inside the UMP.
The recriminations were already flying last night, with Jean-François Copé, leader of the UMP deputies in parliament, calling for the president to “get back to basics”.
The party had found a glimmer of hope in early estimates suggesting that turnout was 4 percentage points higher than in the first round of voting last Sunday, when many conservative voters abstained in an apparent expression of dissatisfaction with Mr Sarkozy’s mercurial style and his record during a severe economic crisis.
The Socialists and their green allies were hoping to take control of Alsace and the island of Corsica, the only two regions governed by the centre-right after the last regional elections, in 2004. Regional councils, which have responsibility for transport, skills and the environment, have a combined budget of some €25bn ($33.8bn, £22.5bn).
Although she had hoped for a clean sweep of the regions, the election result is nonetheless a triumph for Martine Aubry, the Socialist leader, who has gained in stature during the campaign to the point where she is considered a plausible presidential challenger. But in-fighting among the Socialists could break out again as rival contenders jockey for position and as the party tries to hammer out a credible programme.
The results of the first round on March 14 were an early blow for the president.
The UMP and its allies took only 27.2 per cent of the vote, the worst result for the centre-right in more than half a century. It revealed the extent to which the popularity of the centre-right has been depleted during the three action-packed years of Mr Sarkozy’s tenure.
The president now faces the daunting task of rebuilding an election-winning coalition spanning provincial far-right voters and urban liberals, while at the same time tackling the controversial issue of pension reform and reining in the public deficit.
Mr Sarkozy was openly criticised by senior figures in his party for the pace of his sometimes ill-prepared and badly explained reforms, and for his attempt to broaden his appeal by bringing centre-left figures into his government.
Some of them, including Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister, are now at risk of losing their jobs in a reshuffle.