France Votes to Punish Sarkozy

French voters went to polling stations Sunday, March 14, in regional elections forecast to punish French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party in the last ballot-box test before the next presidential vote.

“I don’t think the national government is really tackling social welfare — in terms of jobs for example,” Patricia Abela, a 41-year-old insurance worker, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) after voting for the opposition Socialists in southwest Paris.

French voters cast ballot in a two-round election to choose 1,880 councilors for 26 regional councils, which are responsible for regional transport, secondary education and local economic development.

Turnout was weak, however, in line with pollsters’ predictions — reflecting a loss of faith in French politicians’ ability to ease the pain from the 2008-2009 crisis.

Overall turnout was just under 40 percent at 1600 GMT, according to the interior ministry.

Socialists, who control 20 French regions, are expected to emerge the biggest winners in the vote.

Polls suggest they could even score what their leader Martine Aubry has called “a grand slam” — taking all 26 regions.

Sunday’s vote will be followed by a second round on March 21, when the top two parties in each of the 26 regions will face each other in a decisive runoff.

Christine Eluard, a 47-year-old child minder, cast her ballot for the local candidates of Sarkozy’s centre-right Union for a Popular Movement party.

She, however, said that the elections would be “rather more as a vote of censure” for France’s leaders.

Resentment has been growing at Sarkozy’s policies over the sluggish economy and skyrocketing unemployment, which soared above 10%, with nearly three million people now out of their jobs in 2009.

Social tensions are also being felt.

The government’s public debate on “national identity” has raised racial sensitivities and been widely slammed as a divisive project that stigmatizes immigrants.

Last Test

The regional elections are the last ballot-box test for Sarkozy before the 2012 presidential polls.

“The balance of power is extremely favorable for the left,” said Frederic Dabi, a director at the IFOP polling agency, predicting a heavy defeat for the UMP.

“It’s a regional election, but on March 21, we will already be taking that turn toward the presidential campaign.”

Many see the regional polls as an unofficial referendum on Sarkozy’s policies before the upcoming presidential elections.

“Rarely has a regional election been so national,” the leftwing daily Liberation declared in an editorial on Saturday.

“The last vote before the presidential election in 2012.

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