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Left leads French local elections

Latest update : 2008-03-10

France’s Socialists have taken a lead after the first round of municipal elections, dealing a blow to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party. The capital's Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoe (photo) looks set to secure a second term.

France’s ruling right-wing UMP party didn’t elaborate too much on its relative defeat in the wake of the local elections’ first round on March 9th. President Nicolas Sarkozy passed the responsibility for discussing results on to Prime Minister Francois Fillon. A week earlier, Sarkozy had made clear in an interview with French daily Le Figaro that the election for him was merely an “episode” and that it wouldn’t alter the course of his reform policies.

“The second round is now more than ever in the hands of voters,” Fillon said on Sunday night. Dismissing speculation over whether or not the French had voted to protest against government politics, he asked citizens to vote “in the interest of their towns and villages because that’s what’s at stake.” Indeed, he added, “the French debated and made up their minds on government policy back in the spring of 2007,” when the right won both the presidential and legislative elections.

The gap may be narrow, yet French voters did send a warning to a government they think did too little to tackle the gloomy economy.  “This is the first real test for Nicolas Sarkozy and an opportunity for the French to say ‘we’re here, you made promises, and now you have to deliver’,” says FRANCE 24’s political editor Roselyne Febvre.

A qualified victory for the Left

The Socialist Party (PS) did make headway compared to the last local elections in 2001, though its victory needs qualifying. First of all, they didn’t score as high as the polls were predicting. Furthermore, at 61% the participation rate was slightly lower than in 2001.

In France’s second largest city Lyon, the outgoing Socialist mayor has already secured another term in office, while his counterpart in Paris looks set to follow suit on Sunday. The PS has bagged regional capitals such as Nantes and Dijon, while wresting the cities of Rouen and Rodez from the ruling UMP party. The left appears equally well placed to take Reims, Caen and Strasbourg in the second round, though the outcome appears less certain in Marseille and Toulouse. 

Yet, Sunday’s vote did not bring only bad news for the right. Indeed, most government members were either reelected in their respective town halls, or look very likely to secure another term when voters return to the ballot next Sunday. The day’s biggest victory occurred in Bordeaux, where the former prime minister Alain Juppe was reinstated just nine months after his shock defeat at the legislative election cost him a senior place in Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet.

Socialist Party leader François Hollande was careful not to sound over-confident in the wake of the first round. While suggesting voters had sent "a warning to the president of the republic and the government on the policies conducted over the past nine months,” he also stressed that the contest remained “wide open”. Less cautious, last year’s presidential candidate Segolene Royal said the voters had “punished” the government, and called on them to keep up the pressure in round two.

According to FRANCE 24’s political editor David Crossan, Mrs Royal’s statement illustrates the ambiguity of results as it implies that the French people “may not have chosen to vote for the left”. Indeed, as Christian Makarian of L’Express magazine explained to FRANCE 24, there is no doubt “the Socialist Party made the most of being the only opposition force”.

What role for the MoDem?

In this context, both camps will be seeking to rally their voters for next Sunday’s face-off. “Results will be very close in numerous cities,” said Labour Minister Xavier Betrand, for whom the second round “will be an almost entirely different election”. Meanwhile, the usual arm-twisting has begun behind the scenes, as rival candidates seek alliances with minor parties.

With just 4% of the overall vote, the centrist MoDem party could play a key role in a number of contests. Its leader François Bayrou has declined to give voting instructions, though he may himself need support from the UMP to defeat his Socialist opponent in the race for the south-western city of Pau. Buoyed by their first-round results, many Socialist candidates appear less inclined to look to the centre for support. Indeed, the Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe hardly concealed his preference for an alliance with the Green Party ahead of a second round he seems bound to win.


Date created : 2008-03-10