President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party took a severe drubbing from French voters Sunday in nationwide regional elections that were his last big national test before he seeks re-election in 2012.
As polling stations closed, initial estimates gave Socialist-led opposition electoral alliances some 54 percent of the vote, Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP 36 percent and the far-right National Front just under nine percent.
“It was obviously for us, a real defeat,” said lawmaker Jean-Francois Cope, head of the UMP group in the French parliament.
If confirmed, the estimates — based on samples of cast ballots by polling agencies — leave Sarkozy’s supporters in control of only one of France’s 22 mainland regions, their right-wing stronghold of Alsace.
Meanwhile the left, dominated by Martine Aubry’s Socialist Party, kept its hold on the mainland, French Guyana and the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
The tight race in Corsica was too close to call.
The UMP’s sole consolation was taking the Indian Ocean island of Reunion in the vote, which was to elect the regional councils that are in charge of transport, education and cultural policy.
Turnout was low, although around four percent higher than in last week’s first round. Polling agencies TNS-Sofres and OpinionWay separately predicted that the second round abstention rate would be 49 percent.
Last week’s first-round vote saw the French leader’s right-wing supporters win their lowest share of the vote in more than three decades. The party’s final score improved, but it remained way behind the opposition.
Sarkozy, whose UMP party still has a comfortable majority in the national parliament, has insisted that the regional poll is not a verdict on central government, but he is expected to order a reshuffle in the next few days.
The result was another blow to a president whose personal approval ratings are at an all-time low and will likely increase pressure within his own party for a change of direction.
One report, in the pro-government daily Le Figaro, suggested Prime Minister Francois Fillon would offer his government’s resignation on Monday but that Sarkozy would ask him to form a new, slightly modified cabinet.
“Whatever happens, there won’t be a big shake up. It will be a modest, technical reshuffle, because some adjustments are worth doing,” Sarkozy’s chief adviser Claude Gueant told the Catholic newspaper La Croix.
But he added: “There could be some political content amid the ‘technical’.”
The new ministerial line-up may offer clues as to whether Sarkozy plans to slow down or alter his reform programme. He has spoken of a possible “pause” once he raises the retirement age and reforms some state sector pensions.
“Many of the political strategies of the coming years will be based on this, the last election” before Sarkozy seeks re-election in the presidential vote in 2012, said Pascal Perrineau of the elite Sciences-Po school in Paris.
“He has to reconnect with a part of the popular vote that supported him in 2007. He has to send them signals on unemployment and on the cost of living for the working class,” Perrineau told AFP before the vote.
Meanwhile, the Socialists are expected to try to try use the vote as a springboard to reunited their divided party in time to mount a credible challenge to Sarkozy’s re-election hopes in 2012.
In March 14’s first round, Sarkozy’s party trailed the Socialists with 26.3 to 29.5 percent of the national vote.
The left-leaning greens of Europe Ecologie scored 12.5 percent and then struck regional electoral pacts with the Socialists for the second round, boosting their joint score well ahead of that of the mainstream right.
Meanwhile, the far-right National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, did well enough to stay in the race in 12 mainland regions, meaning that much of its 11 percent of the vote remained outside Sarkozy’s reach.