Sarkozy, Le Pen expect boost from French local polls

AFP , Sunday 29 Mar 2015

France's ruling Socialists looked set for a drubbing in local polls on Sunday that were expected to boost the prospects of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen.

A heavy defeat for the Socialists would be a bad sign in the runup to the 2017 presidential election, in which Sarkozy hopes to wrest power back from the leftist government that has struggled with a sluggish economy and high unemployment.

Shortly before heading to Tunisia to take part in an anti-terrorism march, President Francois Hollande cast his vote in the rural area of Tulle, where he was mayor from 2001 to 2008.

Voter disappointment with what some see as Hollande's economic failures mean Sarkozy's centre-right coalition is likely to dominate Sunday's ballot after topping last week's first-round vote.

"The situation is catastrophic, maybe things will change," said Paul, a 52-year-old maintenance worker living in Lille, near the Belgian border.

Around half the electorate was projected to take part in Sunday's run-off vote for "departmental" governments that manage school and welfare budgets.

Despite the widespread thirst for change, the Socialists did better than expected in the first round, taking 21.8 percent of the vote.

However, government officials fear the ruling party may lose between half and two-thirds of the 60 councils it currently controls in the run-off round.

The campaign has put Sarkozy back in the limelight after a sluggish return to politics in September.

"Change is under way, and nothing will stop it," he said after his UMP-UDI alliance took 29 percent last week.

The far-right National Front (FN), which came second with 25 percent, has sought to manage expectations, with Le Pen saying she does not expect to win any departments, or administrative areas, due to tactical voting by the mainstream parties to keep them from power.

But the FN could still end up in control of two or more departments -- a first for the party, and a further boost after it won several town halls and came first in the European parliament elections last year.

Sarkozy had been criticised since his return for being distant, preoccupied and even bored. But his energetic leadership of the current campaign has restored some of his allure.

"If results match the forecasts, the right's victory will help repair the damage Sarkozy inflicted on himself with his weak, sleepy start," said analyst Stephane Rozes, president of the CAP political consultancy in Paris.

"It will also signal he has appreciated the importance of the centrist vote, which he ignored in 2012 as he shifted his position farther to the right to rival the FN."

The Socialists are heading in the opposite direction after a campaign that mostly focused on the threat of the far-right, and said little about key economic issues.

A boost in Hollande's poll ratings after the January jihadist attacks in Paris proved short-lived.

"Everyone in the (Elysee) is scared he will be eliminated in the first round in 2017," a presidential advisor told AFP, adding that Hollande had no choice but to continue unpopular austerity reforms that have alienated the public and many in his own party.

Gilles Finchelstein, a political strategist close to the Socialists, painted an even darker picture in an article for L'Express magazine, saying "the left is in danger of dying, (and) risks becoming nothing more than a residual political force".

The same is true for the far-right, according to analysts, despite claims by Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls that Le Pen "is at the doors of power".

"Yes, she's had recent significant successes... (but) despite what you hear these days, it's mad to imagine Marine Le Pen in the Elysee," political analyst Nonna Mayer said.

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