- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

PARIS — President Jacques Chirac’s government flunked its first electoral test since assuming power two years ago, suffering stinging defeats yesterday in regional elections that are being seen as a vote of censure against painful economic reforms.

The stunning rebuke, which breathed life back into France’s left-wing opposition, will increase pressure on Mr. Chirac to reshuffle his conservative government and perhaps even ditch his prime minister, the unpopular Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

One of the few silver linings for the government was the moderate showing by the far-right, anti-immigration National Front. It polled 13 percent to 14 percent of the vote — and less for its star candidate in the Paris region.

But the day belonged to the left. It polled 49 percent to 50 percent of the vote and claimed 12 new regions, taking the number under its leadership to at least 21 out of 26. They include overseas territories in the Caribbean, where results were expected later.

Mr. Chirac’s right, in contrast, polled 37 percent to 38 percent and clung on to just the Alsace region in northeastern France and possibly the island of Corsica. Government ministers who hoped to lead regional councils were defeated.

The hammering left Mr. Chirac’s government in a bind. On the one hand, partners in the European Union are pressuring France to rein in its budget deficit to within EU limits. But at the polls, voters showed reluctance to swallow the bitter pill of cuts to France’s treasured public services and welfare protections.

Turnout was high, with about two-thirds of the country’s nearly 42 million voters casting ballots.

Mr. Raffarin acknowledged the defeat but defended his government’s record, saying it has stemmed crime, reformed the creaking state pension system and stabilized unemployment — still running at close to 10 percent.

“It’s not enough, I know. The French told us clearly so today,” he said. But, he insisted, “reforms must continue simply because they are necessary.”

The defeat marked a dramatic turnaround from a year ago, when Mr. Chirac was winning praise within the country for his staunch opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. His government’s reforms have deeply divided France, chipped away at his popularity, and sparked protests and strikes by everyone from theater workers and doctors to transport employees and state-funded scientists.

For the government, making it harder for state workers to get expensive full pensions and trimming the indebted health system’s budget are part of measures to keep France competitive.

But the midterm election bruising, Mr. Chirac’s first national test since he and his party swept presidential and legislative polls in 2002, led to immediate pressure from the opposition for a change in tack.

The leader of the triumphant socialists, Francois Hollande, said a mere ministerial shuffle would not be enough, “no matter how big it is.” Instead, he said, the government must keep its hands off the public sector.

“The disastrous projects on pensions, health and schools must be abandoned,” said socialist Jack Lang, a former minister.

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