Left's big victory is blow to Chirac

Posted in Europe | 29-Mar-04 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

French government shake-up likely

PARIS - French voters handed a clear victory to the Socialist-led opposition in the final round of regional elections on Sunday, dealing a humiliating blow to President Jacques Chirac's party that is expected to cost several senior government ministers their jobs.

In the first ballot since Chirac's center-right Union for a Popular Movement and its ally, the Union for French Democracy, won a majority in Parliament two years ago, the two parties saw their share of the national vote collapse to 36 percent, exit polls showed.

As voters turned out in greater numbers than expected, the opposition Socialist, Communist and Green parties won a combined 49 percent, beating even optimistic forecasts and leaving them in charge of about 19 of the 22 regions in mainland France, according to the polls. The far-right National Front party held its score at 16 percent, but failed to win a single region. Chronically high unemployment and planned budget cuts across the public sector have taken center stage in a campaign that became a midterm referendum on the central government. Following a series of protests by teachers, hospital workers and public sector scientists this month, almost two-thirds of voters said their ballot was intended to express dissatisfaction with the government, rather than focused on filling France's low-profile regional councils, opinion polls this past week showed.

Two weeks after Spanish voters unexpectedly ousted a center-right government and put Socialists in charge, Chirac is likely to take heed. While his majority in the National Assembly is safe until national elections in 2007, the president is expected to announce a cabinet reshuffle as early as Monday. He may also scale back unpopular reforms of the health care system and the labor market, political analysts said. "Their mandate has considerably weakened," said Bruno Jeanbart, director of political studies at the Paris-based CSA polling company. "Heads will have to roll, and they will almost certainly compromise on their reform plans."

Among those who may lose their jobs are the health minister, Jean-François Mattei, and Luc Ferry, in charge of France's education portfolio, Jeanbart said. While Mattei has been criticized for mishandling a heatwave that killed more than 10,000 people last August, Ferry repeatedly clashed with teacher unions over the past year.

Finance Minister Francis Mer, a former chief executive who likes to speak his mind, may also be replaced. "These results aren't good," Justice Minister Dominique Perben said in a televised election panel Sunday night. "We have to recognize that." The popular interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who went on a whirlwind tour of France last week in a last-ditch effort to limit the UMP's losses, will be given "a special place" in the new government, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has promised. The crushing extent of Sunday's defeat has caused speculation to resurface that Raffarin himself is at peril. The prime minister's popularity has halved since the beginning of last year, leaving him with an approval rating of only 31 percent, according to the Sofres institute. In a symbolic defeat, a high-profile Socialist candidate beat one of Raffarin's protégés in his home region of Poitou-Charentes in western France. Segolène Royal, a former minister whose companion, François Hollande, is the leader of the Socialist Party, gained a majority of 55 percent of Sunday's vote, compared with 37 percent for the UMP's Elisabeth Morin, preliminary results showed. While few expect Raffarin to survive the year in his job, Chirac may be tempted to keep him for what promise to be a tough few months ahead. An overhaul of the state-run health care system, shifting a greater portion of the cost to patients, is scheduled for the summer and risks sparking renewed confrontation with labor unions. Last year's pension reform caused weeks of strikes and demonstrations by public sector workers. European elections in June may well end in another embarrassment.

"It's best to do an unpopular reform with an unpopular Prime Minister, blame him for another electoral defeat and then have a fresh start," said Jeanbart, even though the government will "lack credibility."

The prime minister's fall from grace has coincided with a cyclical downturn. Unemployment tops the list of voters' concerns in all opinion polls, and government efforts to combat it were judged "inefficient" by almost 90 percent of respondents of a Sofres poll this month. At 9.6 percent it hovers close to a three-year high and is well above the European Union average of 8 percent.

Stagnating economic growth has also sapped tax receipts, leaving the administration with a budget deficit of E63.4 billion, or almost $77 billion - 4.1 percent of the gross domestic product - and little room to appease voters. Trimming the E10 billion health care deficit is key to bringing the deficit back under the EU's limit of 3 percent of GDP.

Outside a polling station near the Bastille, where an angry mob of citizens set off the French revolution more than two centuries ago, Sevrine Fournier said she was glad the people had once again made themselves heard. "I think the message is clear," said Fournier, 41, a Parisian designer, who voted for the Socialist party. "We want different people in government, with different ideas. We want a government that makes the priorities of voters its priority."