Local elections could thwart Sarkozy's grand ambitions

The first electoral test of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's administration is coming at the worst possible time for him - with his popularity at an all-time low and his reputation as a competent leader badly tarnished. ( dpa )

The municipal elections, which will be held March 9 and 16, also come as Sarkozy prepares to present a new package of wide-ranging social and economic reforms and only a few months before France assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Just a few months ago, Sarkozy had wanted to turn the municipal elections into referendum on national politics, and had planned to play a big role in the campaign.

But so unpopular has he become that he retired from the campaign, which was led instead by his prime minister, the more-popular Francois Fillon.

A new poll, made public Monday in the daily Liberation, showed that Sarkozy's loss of popularity was continuing and that a large majority of the French believed he lacked the character to be president, primarily because of his inability to control himself and because of his indiscreet private life.

Badly weakened by what the French perceived as his far-too-public courtship of singer Carla Bruni, Sarkozy certainly did not help his cause by his recent proposal to have every 10-year-old schoolchild in France "adopt" one of the 11,000 French Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust, or by telling a man who did not want to shake his hand last week, "Then get lost, you bloody idiot."

The poll, conducted by the LH2 institute, suggested that Sarkozy's party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), could pay dearly for his missteps, with nearly four of 10 respondents saying they wanted to see the president and his government punished in the vote.

According to Francois Miquet-Marty, director of political studies at the LH2 institute, Sarkozy's unpopularity is "a definite handicap for UMP candidates."

He said that most of the voters would cast their ballots on local issues, such as the environment and housing, "but Sarkozy's lack of credit will amplify the advantages" of left-wing candidates.

A heavy electoral defeat in the municipal elections could then threaten to derail, or at least delay, Sarkozy's ambitious reforms in France and may even thwart his plans to make the French EU presidency a watershed in the development of the Union.

According to Miquet-Marty said, "If the Left takes control of France's four big cities ( Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse), it will be interpreted as a repudiation of his policies and will weaken him badly."

Opposition Socialists currently occupy City Hall in Paris and Lyon, and are virtually certain to win re-election. And polls show that Socialist challengers stand a better than even chance of beating the UMP incumbents in Toulouse and Marseille.

Miquet-Marty said that Sarkozy's popularity last fall was a big asset in his winnning the face-off against powerful French trade unions over his initial reforms, including the highly contested elimination of certain pension privileges.

"An electoral defeat now will make it far more difficult to carry out more reforms," he noted.

A defeat would also hamper the French president on the international scene, he said, because "it will damage his image in the principal countries of the European Union."

According to Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an EU expert at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, an embarrassment in the municipal elections would limit Sarkozy's freedom of action when France takes over the EU presidency on July 1.

For one, it would empower his numerous critics in Brussels, who have been put off by his unilateral approach to decision-making, such as over his pet scheme, the Mediterranean Union, his announcement that he would do away with EU fish quotas and his oft-expressed wish to reduce the independence of the European Central Bank.

Kaczynski said these critics feel uncomfortable with Sarkozy's "the king is me" attitude and his tendency to work "behind closed doors."

But a weakened Sarkozy, he argues, would be unfortunate, since France will be expected to help launch a number of important initiatives by the EU Commission, now that the debate on the Reform Treaty has been shelved.

"The French presidency will be expected to make a big jump and propose high-profile initiatives for the future of the EU," Kaczynski said.

Such initiatives include an overhaul of the EU budget, the way Brussels handles structural funds destined for poorer members of the EU, and research and technology measures designed to stimulate the economy.

"At the moment, Sarkozy is the only strong EU leader. And strong leadership is necessary," Kaczynski said. But a weak Sarkozy, he warned, "will mean that fewer proposals will be put on the table."

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