Has Sarkozy won his first battle to reclaim the Elysée?
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Former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party won the first round of local elections in France on Sunday in what could be his first success in a long and likely turbulent campaign to reclaim the presidency in 2017.
Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), in coalition with centrists of the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI), claimed a resounding victory in departmental polls with 29.4 percent of all votes, according to interior ministry figures. The surging far-right National Front (FN) finished in second place with 25.2 percent of ballots, while the ruling Socialist Party (PS) and its allies came in third with 21.9 support.
The triumph appeared to cement Sarkozy’s return to politics four months after he took over as his party’s chairman. In a speech following results on Sunday night, the former head of state declared the ballot was also the beginning of a political sea change.
“French people want clear change that will start with these departmental elections,” Sarkozy told a crowd of supporters and reporters in Paris. “A new government is coming and nothing can stop it.”
Sarkozy, who was France’s president between 2007 and 2012, was making a direct reference to more important regional polls scheduled for December and presidential elections in 2017 – a contest in which he is widely expected to seek the UMP’s nomination.
Far right falls short
The battle for the Elysée presidential palace remains far off, but the campaign is unofficially under way, and many think Sarkozy emerged from Sunday’s departmental elections with a decisive head start.
“He can now claim that he led a successful campaign as the president of a new UMP,” Jean Garrigues, a French political historian and analyst told FRANCE 24. It is a feat neither of his main rivals within the UMP, former prime ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé, can match.
Sarkozy and the UMP now appear poised to consolidate the victory in the second round of the departmental elections on March 29, all while serving a slice of humble pie to the FN.
Marine Le Pen’s far-right party was forecast to win as much as 30 percent of ballots on Sunday. The party managed around 25 percent and may walk away next Sunday with just a fraction of the 3,810 departmental council seats still up for grabs.
Observers said Sarkozy’s electoral success should largely be the result of an alliance forged with centrist candidates ahead of the first round. The UMP and UDI presented a joint list of four candidates in most departments, with election posters highlighting twin endorsements.
“The UMP’s positive results can be attributed to Nicolas Sarkozy in as much as he was able to forge a strategic front with the UDI and a part of the (centrist) Democratic Movement party,” said Jean-Daniel Levy, a political analyst at the French polling firm Harris Interactive. “[Sarkozy] will certainly profit from this election.”
While the UMP-UDI alliance has shown it can bear fruit, it remains to be seen if it would survive a larger election.The marriage was already showing signs of wear between the two rounds of the relatively minor departmental poll.
Sarkozy refused to give voting instructions to supporters who will be taking part in runoff polls where there were no UMP-UDI candidates. However, UDI president Jean-Christophe Lagarde called on voters forced to choose between the Socialist Party and the FN to vote against the far-right candidate.
Disagreement over what position to take in relation to the FN is also seething within Sarkozy’s own camp, with moderates like Juppé and UMP vice-president Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet pleading for a hard-line approach to the anti-immigration, anti-euro camp.
Sarkozy has so far adopted a more conciliatory tone, and in the run-up to the departmental elections made declarations meant to appeal to far-right constituents.
The former president said he was against offering school lunch alternatives for students whose religious beliefs barred them from eating pork, and that he supported banning Muslim veils in French universities.
Former PM François Fillon on Monday hailed his UMP party’s victory at the ballot box, but quickly pointed out he was in complete disagreement with Sarkozy’s latest declarations.