Sarkozy strategizes after French election rebuff

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Paris (AP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy plotted strategy Monday with his prime minister after their conservative party’s crushing defeat in regional elections, with a Cabinet shuffle said to be in the offing.

Sunday’s vote informally kicked off the 2012 presidential race, delivering a wake-up call to Sarkozy to change tack on jobs and other economic policies and reconnect with alienated voters if he wants to win a second term.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon met for 80 minutes with Sarkozy at the presidential palace with speculation widespread about who was likely to go in a Cabinet shake-up. Earlier, Sarkozy’s chief of staff predicted a modest postelection reshuffle.

Presidential security guards closed off the Elysee Palace to reporters. As Fillon left, former Interior Minister Francois Baroin — a fellow conservative and long an ally of former President Jacques Chirac — arrived to meet with Sarkozy.

The long-flailing French left made a big-time comeback in the vote, which was colored by worries about jobs, paychecks and pensions in the wake of France’s worst recession since World War II. The extreme right also bounced back from decline and proved that worries about immigration and France’ evolving national identity remain alive.

Cheers resounded from Socialist Party headquarters as leftists swept races from the French Riviera to Paris. With 99.6 percent of ballots counted, the Socialists and their allies won 53.8 percent of the vote nationwide, while Sarkozy’s UMP party had 35.5 percent, according to the Interior Ministry.

Turnout, though, hit record lows in Sunday’s runoff — at 51 percent — and in the first round a week earlier, when it was just 46 percent.

The results show what a rough road the dynamic but increasingly isolated Sarkozy has ahead of him between now and 2012.

Nationwide strikes are planned Tuesday by some of those who punished his party Sunday: train drivers angry over pension reforms that are a pillar of his presidential policy, and teachers angry over job cuts. Meanwhile, he faces new challenges from a popular green movement and a reinvigorated extreme right.

Sunday’s vote came close to the sweep of all 26 regions that the Socialists were hoping for. Official results showed the conservatives holding on to Alsace but losing control of Corsica. Those were the only two regions run by the right going into the vote. Conservatives also took control of two overseas provinces — French Guiana in South America, and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

“These elections show that the French are worried,” Fillon said. Fillon blamed the recession for his party’s bad showing, but warned that France can no longer finance its generous social benefits without cost-cutting, and suggested reforms would continue.

UMP leader Xavier Bertrand, speaking on RTL radio on Monday, suggested the conservative leadership was unfazed: “I didn’t hear the French people say ‘No’ to reforms.” He suggested the French were looking for guidance out of the economic crisis.

For the left, Sunday’s election may help rescue the Socialists after years of being divided and drifting. The Socialists were boosted by alliances with far left parties and especially with Europe Ecologie, a movement of green parties enjoying growing popularity.

The challenge now is for the left to keep those ties from unraveling.

The far right National Front reversed its decline and won 9.5 percent of votes overall in the 12 regions where they made it into Sunday’s runoff — and in some regions topped 20 percent.

Sunday’s elections decided the leadership of 26 regional councils from the French mainland to far-flung provinces in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. The Socialists bulldozed their way across France in the last vote in 2004, but performed even better this year.

Full story: Sarkozy strategizes after French election rebuff – AP via Fox News