Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had made no secret of using the elections as a springboard for returning to the highest office. Photo / AFP
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy bolstered his chances of a return to France’s top job after his conservatives gave the Socialists one of their greatest election thrashings and blunted a thrust by the far-right.
Four months after Sarkozy returned as party leader, his Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) and its centrist allies were on course for unprecedented victory, winning about two-thirds of elections to France’s local councils, according to exit polls. A barometer of national politics, the vote – a runoff after a first ballot a week ago – saw President Francois Hollande’s Socialists lose dozens of councils, leaving it to hold sway in only about a third of the total. It suffered two particularly stinging defeats, with the loss of Correze in the southwest and Essonne south of Paris – the prized home territories of Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls respectively.
And a much-feared breakthrough by the National Front (FN) failed to happen. The anti-immigrant, anti-Europe party made its greatest-ever gain at district level, picking up about 50 seats, but failed to get overall control of a single department, even in the northern rustbelt and in the Mediterranean south, where immigration and security are hot-button issues.
“Change is on the way. Nothing will stop it,” a hugely satisfied Sarkozy declared in a victory speech. “The French have massively rejected the policies of Francois Hollande and his Government.”
Sarkozy had made no secret of using the elections as a springboard for returning to the highest office. He began the comeback trail last year, winning control of a party ravaged by infighting and allegations of financial sleaze, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and outflanked by the populist FN. His next target will be the regional elections in December and then party primaries in 2016 for the 2017 presidentials.
The Socialists paid the price for Hollande’s unpopularity and for the state of France’s economy, getting whipped for the third time in a year after defeats in municipal and European elections. “The French public, in the way they voted or chose not to vote, have once more voiced their expectations, their demands, their anger and their fatigue in the face of a daily life that is too hard,” Valls said, adding “the message has been received.”
Yesterday’s crushing defeat revived fighting between Socialists moderates and the hard left over Hollande’s pro-business u-turn.
Jean-Yves Camus of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations think-tank in Paris said Sarkozy could not expect his way back to power to be smooth, given the still-raw memories of his turbulent presidency, his own scandals and the challenge posed on his left by former Prime Minister Alain Juppe. “Sarkozy has a lead, but the primaries remain quite open and Juppe is not out of the running. The danger for Sarkozy is that he thinks the voters want him to act after 2017 as he did after 2002.”