Sarkozy in tough re-election fight after political 'earthquake'

 

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Four years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy boasted he would oversee a transformation of the French political landscape. Yesterday, to his dismay, he succeeded.

The upper house of the French parliament, as much a bastion of conservatism as Britain's House of Lords, swung to the Left for the first time in 53 years. By some calculations, this is the first time the Senate has had a left-wing majority since its creation in 1851.

In elections on Sunday, in which only local and regional politicians could vote, the Left captured 25 seats from Mr Sarkozy's centre-right to achieve a likely senate majority of 178 to 170. Even Le Figaro, a fiercely pro-Sarkozy newspaper, called it "an earthquake".

Seven months before he seeks re-election, President Sarkozy faces miserable poll ratings, a European economic crisis and a deepening scandal over alleged illegal political financing in the 1990s. He must now fight the election as the man who lost the right-wing's perpetual Senate majority,

The Senate has limited powers to delay, or propose, legislation broadly in line with those of the House of Lords. But the left-wing opposition now has a pre-election, official platform from which to denigrate and delay Mr Sarkozy's economic and social policies and offer alternatives of their own.

The President of the Senate steps in temporarily if the President dies or is incapacitated. If chosen as president by the Senate on Saturday, Socialist Jean-Pierre Bel, 59, will be "one heart-beat away" from the presidency.

Centre-right senators tried yesterday to block his election by appealing to independent senators. Even some members of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), called the manoeuvres "pitiful" and "undemocratic". Other members of Mr Sarkozy's party tried to minimise the defeat, saying it was not a rejection by the full electorate. Only 70,000 locally and nationally elected politicians – "super-electors" – could vote. Only half the Senate constituencies were up for grabs.

Government supporters said the election merely mimicked the results of local polls in recent years which have given the Left a grip on cities, towns and regions. This is true but it drew attention to the fact Mr Sarkozy's party have lost every mid-term local election since he came to power in May 2007.

Even worse for the centre-right, several seats were lost because of revolts and splits in the ranks of Mr Sarkozy's supporters. The Senate victory opens up the prospect of an unprecedented left-wing stranglehold on government if a Socialist candidate wins the presidential election in April and May.

A left-wing president would almost certainly win the parliamentary elections in June. The Left already controls almost all of the 20 French regional governments and most major cities.

But President Sarkozy is a tough campaigner. His defeat next spring, despite poor poll ratings and yesterday's calamity, is by no means certain.

But the Elysée Palace is braced for further revelations this week on the so-called Karachi affair: a judicial investigation of alleged kick-backs on defence contracts in 1994-45 over which two close associates of President Sarkozy were arrested last week.

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