BEFORE FRANCE'S two-round regional elections on March 14 and 21, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared they were just that: local. In no way, therefore, should they be analyzed as a test of his popularity three years after he won his five-year residency in the Elysée Palace.
On March 22, the undaunted CenterLeft daily Libération had a pink front page, indicating the remarkable victory of the Socialist Party and its proenvironmental allies across the map. Only the narrow strip of Alsace, to the east, appeared in blue, the color of Sarkozy 's Center-Right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), now referred to in cafés throughout the country as the Union for a Losing Party. It received 36 per cent of the vote, against 54 per cent for the Socialists and their allies. (Outside mainland France the UMP lost Corsica but controls Guyana, in the West Indies, and Réunion, in the Indian Ocean.)
With two years of his term remaining, Sarkozy is no longer perceived as the unstoppable Speedy Gonzales of French politics, prone to firing offa barrage of ideas for the country while displaying in the media a lavish lifestyle and episodes ofhis matrimonial doings. Indeed, his reaction to the election results was an unimaginative government reshuffling that went mostly unnoticed. He sacked Labor Minister Xavier Darcos and replaced him with Budget Minister Eric Woerth. Woerth's office was given to François Baroin, who is close to former President Jacques Chirac and has been critical of Sarkozy. Another newcomer, Georges Tron, who is close to former UMP Foreign Minister and Sarkozy's arch rival Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, has been entrusted with the Ministry for Public Services.
Altogether, some 20 ministers and junior ministers were regional candidates at Sarkozy's request. Not one was elected. The decision to drop Darcos and not all the other losers - which would have produced a more noticeable reshuffling-was apparently linked to the fact that the government is about to enter into difficult negotiations with the trade unions over a planned reform of the pension system and does not want to be hampered by a weakened minister.
The elections' results reflect the deepening disaffection with Sarkozy, who is at his lowest rating in the opinion polls since 2007: 65 per cent of those polled at the end of March thought he is not running the country well, against 32 per cent who thought the opposite. Conversely, Prime Minister François Fillon has seen his own popularity rise. A few UMP deputies and senators are discreetly suggesting that he might make a good candidate in 20 12. Traditionally the prime minister's role inFrance is to take the blows and protect the president. But Sarkozy's ubiquity and insistence that all decisions flow from the Elysée have exposed him and reversed the pattern.
Fillon, however, is not the UMP's only potential 20 12 standard-bearer. Sarkozy has not said his last word, even though both his wife, singer-model Carla Bruni, and his father are reported as saying they do not think he should run again. Two other contenders are waiting on the sidelines: Villepin and Alain Juppé, a former prime minister under Chirac.
Shortly after the regional contests, Villepin announced his intention to launch a new Center-Right "movement" in June. Juppé, now the mayor of Bordeaux, still describes Sarkozy as "the UMP's natural candidate for 2012," yet does not exclude trying his luck if the UMP decides to organize a runoff. Jean-François Copé, the party's leader in the National Assembly, is also believed to be toying with entering the race.
LOYALISTS attribute the UMP's poor showing in March to a low voter turnout (5 1 per cent in the second round, merely a couple of points higher than in the first one). They see this as reflecting disenchantment with politics and worry about the economic situation. There may be some truth in that, but apparently a larger proportion of the UMP …