- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

PARIS — A rejuvenated French left and the ruling center-right government began jockeying for position yesterday after voters delivered a stinging rebuke to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s reform plans in the first round of regional elections.

No clear victor emerged from Sunday’s vote in France’s 26 regions ahead of next week’s decisive second round, but political observers said the 40 percent showing for the mainstream left was a sign of broad voter discontent.

“The slap,” wrote daily France-Soir in a front-page headline over a picture of Mr. Raffarin, and Le Figaro called the result “the shock of the first round.”

Conservatives tallied 34 percent, the Interior Ministry said. The extreme-right National Front, which won 15 percent, was thrust into the role of kingmaker before Sunday’s final round.

“The French are not happy with their government. They’ve expressed their suffering,” said Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande on French television. “They used this vote for the left to express their dissatisfaction and discontent.”

Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie acknowledged that voters had delivered a “warning” to the government as it carries out reform in areas such as health care and education.

“This is the demonstration of impatience — even exasperation — of a certain number of French who are facing life-changing reforms they deem to be moving too slowly,” she said on RTL radio.

The increasingly unpopular Mr. Raffarin, speaking after the vote on Sunday, said he has heard the messages of voters, “and I am attentive to them.” In nearly two years in office, Mr. Raffarin has administered a bitter pill of budget cuts, fueling protests by groups as diverse as doctors, railway workers, actors and researchers.

The elections offer a political weather vane for President Jacques Chirac, who selected Mr. Raffarin from relative anonymity to head the government in 2002. The regionals are the first vote since then and the only national elections before the presidential contest in 2007.

Mr. Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP) runs 15 of France’s 26 regions, four of them overseas. The Socialists hold nine, and the Communists and center-right Union for the French Democracy each control one.

Some political observers expect Mr. Chirac to shake up the Cabinet if opposition parties seize control of current UMP strongholds. The French press has speculated that Mr. Raffarin could be replaced if the defeat is devastating.

Mr. Raffarin’s effort to reduce the budget deficit, which is in violation of European Union limits, has run afoul of a wide swath of French society.

But the government has failed to give a boost to the economy, which grew a paltry 0.2 percent last year — the worst showing since 1993 — or stem the unemployment rate, now at about 10 percent. The elections, held every six years, are for regional leaders responsible for some infrastructure projects, job training, school construction and other tasks.

Not all the news was bad for the governing right, which could win control of the Ile de France region, where Paris is located and which is now run by the left.

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