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Brief respite for Sarkozy as rival Borloo quits

Former French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo has withdrawn his bid to stand as a presidential candidate in next year’s election – a small respite for President Nicolas Sarkozy as his uphill battle to win the 2012 vote begins.


A centrist politician who was widely tipped to enter the French Presidential race has announced he is dropping his bid, giving some breathing space to embattled President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Former Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo told TF1 television on Sunday that he no longer wanted to represent his breakaway alliance of centrist parties (ARES) in the 2012 vote.

“In my heart and in my conscience I believe that my candidature would bring more confusion than solutions,” Borloo said. “This is the most responsible course of action.”

Borloo allegedly quit his position as environment minister when he was passed over for premiership in a cabinet reshuffle at the end of 2010.

In April of this year he left Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party with a view to setting up his centrist alliance and to stand for president.

Dropping his candidature means that the messy array of centrist and centre-right presidential hopefuls has been reduced by a factor of one.

“This is good news for Sarkozy,” said FRANCE 24’s French Politics Editor Marc Perelman, who said that with Borloo out of the way, Sarkozy “has more chances of getting through to the second round of the [2012] presidential election.”

And Sarkozy, head of the centre-right UMP party, needs every advantage he can get. He has scored consistently low in the polls, and a Viavoice poll in Monday’s left-leaning French daily Liberation had 68% of respondents saying they did not envisage him winning a second term.

Borloo a small fry among the sharks

Vincent Tiberj, senior political researcher at Paris Sciences Po University, told FRANCE 24 that Borloo dropping out of the race served only to illustrate the gravity of Sarkozy’s situation.

Borloo, he said, “had between 7% and 9% support in the polls and was never a particularly high profile figure, even in French politics.”

Tiberj added: “Sarkozy needs every possible vote to get through to a second round of next year’s election and it’s the other centrist candidates who have the potential to force him out of the running.”

These include one-time Sarkozy ally and former Defence Minister Herve Morin, of the New Centre party, who said on Sunday that he was considering standing in Borloo’s place.

Another is Francois Bayrou, who came third in the 2007 presidential vote, of the centrist MoDem. Bayrou said in August that running in the presidential race was “essential”.

Finally there is Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, an arch rival of Sarkozy’s, who has vowed to “defend the cause of the centrists” against Sarkozy.

A resurgent socialist opposition

On the other side of the political spectrum is France’s main opposition Socialist Party (PS), which is due to hold US-style primaries on October 9 to choose a single presidential candidate. For the first time, the ballot is open to all French voters.

A successful PS vote has the potential to restore public confidence in a party that has been wracked by divisions and infighting.

It would also be a massive headache for the incumbent president.

“No one will know if the left has been united until the primaries take place,” said Tiberj. “But if there is a clear winner from a good turnout of voters then it will certainly look good for the PS.”

New levels of unpopularity

Beyond Sarkozy’s rivals and opponents is the voting public. Tiberj played down the severity of the latest poll results, saying he expects next year’s vote to be a close result: “French polls are notoriously unreflective of actual voting behaviour.”

But he said it was impossible to ignore that public opinion had massively turned against Sarkozy.

He said: “Borloo dropping out of the race helps Sarkozy, but to a very limited extent. No amount of reasoning with voters will overcome the fact that each and every government reform since he was elected has been unpopular. The level of resentment against him has reached new levels.

“As much as he believes people can be turned back to his agenda, there is a nationwide rejection of the right wing. People are fed up. And when people are fed up they vote against the government.”

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