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Sarkozy feels pressure after election failure

Eric Feferberg, AFP | Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains came second behind the National Front in the first round of France’s regional elections on Sunday December 6, 2015

The far right’s success grabbed the headlines after the first round of France’s regional elections Sunday. But while the vote was a resounding defeat for François Hollande’s Socialists, it will also up the pressure on Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives.

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Just a few weeks ago, Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party (formerly known as the UMP), was hoping for a landslide victory in Sunday’s vote that would confirm its ascendancy over the ruling Socialists and pave the way for their return to power.

The ingredients were there to make it happen. Hollande’s approval ratings have been stubbornly low from almost the moment he took power, while under his term in office France has faced high unemployment and weak economic growth.

But in the end, Les Républicains secured just 26.65 percent of the vote nationwide, behind the far-right National Front (FN) on 27.73 percent. And while the party finished ahead of the Socialists, the 3.5-point gap was not nearly as wide as Sarkozy would have been hoping for.

The former president will be able to point to a surge in the FN’s popularity, down in part to external factors such as Europe’s refugee crisis and the recent terror attacks in Paris, as reason for his party’s underwhelming performance.

But the failure to capitalise on the Socialists’ troubles will be seen as a significant setback for Les Républicains and Sarkozy personally, whose hopes of standing as his party’s candidate in the 2017 presidential elections in 2017 have taken a major hit.

“The conservatives were clearly hoping to win, they knew the president wasn’t popular, his policies weren’t popular, unemployment was high,” said FRANCE 24’s French politics correspondent editor Marc Perelman.

“So clearly this was a pretty bad night for Sarkozy and there’ll be challenges within his own party as to who will be running in 2017.”

Sarkozy ‘not credible’

Since returning to politics as head of Les Républicains a year ago, Sarkozy has gone about stamping his mark on the party. Its name change, from the UMP, came at Sarkozy’s behest and was part of a rebranding exercise that sought to move the party away from the infighting and scandals that had plagued it for years.

Sunday’s electoral failure will, therefore, not only be a stick for Sarkozy’s rivals within Les Républicains to beat him with, but a means to call into question the entire direction the party is taking under his leadership.

Former prime minister Alain Juppé, one of Sarkozy’s principal challengers to be the party’s presidential candidate in 2017, was the first to seize the opportunity on Monday, even if he could not be drawn to comment on Sarkozy directly.

It was clear that the party’s message was not “being heard”, particularly in comparison to that of Marine Le Pen’s FN, Juppé told reporters.

“When we try to explain to the French people that the FN has no credible solutions, whether on security, unemployment etc., we are not being heard at the moment. Why? What arguments to make? What line to take? I think we need to have a real debate when the time comes."

Asked if the party’s performance in Sunday’s first round was a failure for Sarkozy, Juppé remained tight-lipped.

“I won’t fall into that trap,” he said.

Others have not been so coy.

Sunday’s election results were “a failure for Nicolas Sarkozy” as he is “not credible” in the eyes of the electorate having already lost the public vote in the 2012 presidential election, Les Républicains member of the National Assembly Hervé Mariton told French radio Monday.

"We cannot regain the confidence of the French by putting forward as the opposition’s main contender someone who was clearly rejected by the French people in 2012," said Mariton, who stood against Sarkozy in the race to become party leader in 2014.

Risky strategy

SARKOZY GRAB

Sarkozy, meanwhile, has taken something of a gamble with his party’s strategy for the second round of voting on December 13. Unlike the Socialists, he has refused to countenance pulling candidates out of certain regions in order to block an FN victory.

It is a ploy that could backfire if the French public see it as a failure to stand up to the far right.

For now, most of the party’s senior figures are backing him on this issue, including Juppé. But others are not convinced.

Party number two Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was in favour of Les Républicains withdrawing from the second-round vote in the Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées region, where they finished third behind the FN and the Socialists in the first round, but was outvoted at a meeting of party chiefs on Monday.

Former prime minister and current Les Républicains senator Jean-Pierre Raffarin also spoke out against Sarkozy’s decision.

“When you are third, you pull out. You create a front against the destructive force because now is the time to rebuild,” he told France Inter Monday.

The FN’s success in the regional elections could well provide a springboard for Le Pen to run as a genuine contender in 2017’s presidential vote. Whether Sarkozy will feature among her challengers, on the other hand, is far from assured.

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