French socialists take a beating in local elections

France's ruling Socialists lost out to the right in the country's local elections on Sunday as Nicolas Sarkozy said the French public had massively rejected the Hollande government. Reports said the National Front failed to take control of a council.

French socialists take a beating in local elections
Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the victory of his centre-right alliance that routed the Socialists in the local elections. Photo: AFP

The ruling Socialists suffered a major blow in France's run-off local polls on Sunday as the centre-right alliance of former president Nicolas Sarkozy won a sizeable victory.

Right-wing parties, spearheaded by Sarkozy's UMP, took between 64 and 70 councils out of a possible 98, according to projections, as voters punished the socialist government of President Francois Hollande for failing to revive the slumping economy.

Left-wing parties took a beating, taking only between 27 and 37 councils, the projections by the Ipsos and CSA polling firms indicated.

Sarkozy leader of France's centre right coalition UMP party hailed the victory for his party. 

"Tonight the Republican right and the centre have clearly won these départmental elections. Never before in the fifth Republic has our political family achieved such a result. 

"Through this vote the French public have massively rejected the policies of François Hollande and his government.

France's far-right National Front (FN) won a sizeable number of council seats in Sunday's run-off elections but Marine Le Pen's party is not predicted to have won any local councils, according to projections based on early counting.

The party is often blocked from victory in second-round run-offs by tactical voting from mainstream voters, who gang up to keep the FN out of power.

Although Le Pen's party didn't quite do as well as many polls had predicted, the results still represented an historic success for the National Front.

Le Pen herself hailed a "magnificent success" for the FN, adding that her party was "becoming a powerful political force in numerous regions." She blasted the Socialists for the "bitter campagne" that they led.

The vote was seen as a key test of the French political landscape only two years ahead of presidential elections.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged that the leftist Socialists had suffered a "setback" in the elections and stressed that the FN's score was "far too high."

Valls vowed to "redouble" the government's efforts to pep up the French economy, the second biggest in the eurozone.

In a symbolic blow to the Socialists the département of Corrèze, President François Hollande's heartland was won by the right.

Hollande has seen his popularity ratings plummet back to record lows after a slight bump after the January jihadist attacks in Paris, when he was credited with bringing the country together.

There are now fears he might crash and burn at the presidential poll.

"Everyone in the (Elysee) is scared he will be eliminated in the first round in 2017," a presidential advisor told AFP, adding that Hollande had no choice but to continue unpopular austerity reforms that have alienated the public and many in his own party.

Gilles Finchelstein, a political strategist close to the Socialists, painted an even darker picture in an article for L'Express magazine, saying "the left is in danger of dying, (and) risks becoming nothing more than a residual political force".

Around half the electorate took part in Sunday's vote for "departmental" governments that manage school and welfare budgets.



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Macron braces for local election blow as French voters stay away from polls

French voters abstained in their millions Sunday from a final round of municipal elections predicted to deal a blow to the party of President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron braces for local election blow as French voters stay away from polls

Amid persistent fears of coronavirus contagion, just over a third of voters had turned out by 5:00 pm, three hours before polling stations close, the interior ministry said.

The turnout rate of 34.67 percent was lower even than nine hours into the first round of voting on March 15 that was marked by a record 55-percent abstention rate.

Three polling agencies predicted participation would reach no more than 41 percent by the day's close, compared to 62.2 percent in 2014.

Polls opened for some 16.5 million eligible voters at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in nearly 5,000 cities and towns where the first election round failed to yield a decisive outcome.

This represents about 15 percent of the country's municipal councils where power remains up for grabs, including the key cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg. 

The opening election round was held just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining deadly momentum, but the second phase, originally scheduled for March 22, was postponed after France went into lockdown.

A new date was set after the government's scientific council said it was possible to hold another round safely, but voters were required to wear face masks and urged to bring their own pens to lower the contamination risk. 

Many voters and election officials sported germ-blocking plastic visors, and plexiglass screens were erected between them at several polling stations, which also provided sanitising hand gel.

“If one can go shopping, why not go vote?” said an undeterred Martine Legros, 67, who cast her ballot in Dijon in eastern France.

High toll

Analysts expect the election to confirm that Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party — founded by the president ahead of his 2017 election win — has failed to gain a strong foothold at local level.

The party made lacklustre showings in March — notably in Paris where Macron's candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, came third.

“The problem is that the LREM is a new party that has no local roots and is struggling to impose itself as a (political) force,” analyst Jean Garrigues of the University of Orleans told AFP.

With a death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country went into lockdown on March 17, just two days after the first  round of municipal voting.

Most restrictions have now been eased.

Cabinet reshuffle? 

During the outbreak, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe — an unshowy technocrat — saw his popularity rise to a level higher than that of Macron, whose policies have been the target of months of protests and strikes.

Macron's critics say he is a president of the rich and out of touch with ordinary people.

Paris is buzzing with speculation that a poor showing by the LREM on Sunday could see Macron reshuffle his cabinet, possibly axing Philippe who campaigned to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.

Holding two executive posts is allowed under French law.

Firing Philippe would allow Macron “to claim he is delivering on his promise to ensure the 'second act' of his presidency takes note of failings revealed by his handling of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.

With just 22 months to the next presidential election, Macron's main challenger is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally.

Despite an abysmal performance in the last national elections, France's Socialists are expected Sunday to keep key regional centres, including Paris.

There will also be close attention on the Europe Ecology – The Greens party, which has its eye on the Alpine hub of Grenoble as well as Strasbourg and Lyon.

In Marseille, leftist Michele Rubirola hopes to take France's second city from the right after a quarter of a century of control.

For Le Pen's National Rally, the big prize would be Perpignan in the south, which could become the stage for the first far-right takeover of a French city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since 1995. 

The only region of France not voting Sunday is the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic is deemed too active to open polling stations.