Sarkozy prepares for rebuke at the polls

Updated:

PARIS, France — If the polls and pundits are correct, a second round of regional elections on March 21 could leave President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party wallowing in defeat and the opposition Socialists basking in the glow of a “grand-slam” victory — an outcome that would augur badly for a possible re-election bid by Sarkozy in 2012.

The president has already tried to downplay the expected outcome by implying that he has no intention of playing the sort of ministerial musical chairs that was on display after previous defeats at the polls. Regional elections equal regional consequences, Sarkozy said in an interview with the magazine Le Figaro three days before polls opened.

For two Sundays in a row starting today, millions of voters will elect officials to some 1,880 seats in mainland France’s 22 regions and in four of its overseas territories. No matter the outcome, the governing party will remain in power. But at the regional level, where councils influence budgets and make decisions with direct impact on people’s lives, such as about education and transportation, the Socialists could end up controlling all 26 regions. During the last regional elections in 2004, the Socialists won 20 of the 22 regions on the mainland.

 Elegantly dressed in a long red smock coat and pushing her toddler grandchildren in a tandem stroller, Marie-Claude Richet said she has always voted and was doing so this time so the Ile-de-France region would stay to the left. Another reason, she said, was “to try to get rid of Sarkozy.”

 The 67-year-old retired banker who cast her ballot in southeast Paris said she would like to see some intelligence return to politics and for “citizens to take back the society that is being destroyed.” The government has squandered the country’s riches, she said, stressing that as a former banker she was well positioned to know what she is talking about. “It’s a waking nightmare.”

 Similar perhaps to a midterm election in the United States, France's regional elections in two rounds allow citizens to take a critical look at the ruling party’s performance. It can be regarded as a way to scrutinize the country’s leadership over pressing concerns like job creation and pension reform, security and the environment. At least 20 cabinet members from Sarkozy’s UMP party are on the ballot and hoping to prove the pundits wrong.

They can count on support from 76-year-old retiree Jeanne Dumas, who voted UMP in the first round. “There’s too much inequality, too many lay-offs, more and more unemployment,” said Dumas. “Businesses have to make more of an effort to keep their salaried workers” and stop moving jobs overseas.

Dumas, who retired from a career in book editing, lamented the low turnout though, even turning to commiserate with fellow voters who trickled into a neighborhood school to cast their ballots.

An estimated 47 percent of voters were expected to stay home, according to a poll earlier this month by the French Institute of Public Opinion, which also predicted that “a likelihood of a protest vote against the presidential majority remains high.” By late afternoon on the first Sunday of voting, news reports said about 39 percent of voters had participated.

Whether some of the last-ditch efforts to get voters to the polls — such as an online video released by UMP — will work remains to be seen. In the UMP video, Xavier Bertrand, the party’s general secretary, urged voters — by name — to cast their votes, a tactic taken directly from the Barack Obama campaign playbook.

Other efforts have drawn criticism and snickering, such as Sarkozy appearing at events in contested regions or inviting UMP candidates to the presidential office and residence, the Elysee Palace, just days before the vote. Some accused the president, whose approval ratings have sunk recently, of behaving more like a campaign manager than an impartial president.

“My duty as head of state now is asking the French to vote to select the team who will lead their region,” Sarkozy told Le Figaro, addressing attacks that he has been too present a figure in the proceedings. “Where did you see that I was engaged in the campaign?” he asked the interviewer.

In addition, the fallout from the national identity debate is still lurking even though the discussion was tabled until April. The president also ventured into a controversy involving a young Moroccan woman that was seen as a ploy to curry votes. The woman fled her native country and an arranged marriage only to come to France where her brother reportedly abused her. After complaining to the police, her immigration status was investigated and she was deported due to irregularities, a decision with chilling ramifications for abused women. Rights groups picked up on the affair, supporting the 19-year-old woman, and on International Women's Day, the president declared the woman could come back to France if she wanted.

But it is unclear whether the message sent by voters will be acknowledged. Sarkozy refused to speculate to Le Figaro about whether he would seek a second term in 2012.

“My mandate lasts five years,” he said. “I forbid myself to even think about it, considering the problems I have to solve.”