- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

PARIS (AP) — President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party braced today for a possible setback in local elections seen as a key electoral test for France’s conservative leader and a barometer of his party’s political strength.

Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, was hoping to hang onto two of France’s largest cities in today’s second and final round of voting to elect mayors, deputy mayors and city councilors.

The first round March 9 gave the rival Socialist Party a modest lead: 47.5 percent of the vote compared with 44.4 percent for the UMP.

Voter turnout was seen as key in tipping the balance in today’s elections. Both the right and left urged people to go out and vote.

The Interior Ministry said 54.5 percent of voters had cast their ballots by 5 p.m. That was slightly lower than turnout in last week’s first round, when 56.3 percent of voters had cast their ballots by that time.

In the second round of the 2001 local elections, 5 p.m. turnout was 54.6 percent.

The UMP’s fears center around tight races in the rightist bastions of Marseille and Toulouse, which — if the Socialists take them — would give them France’s four largest political power bases, a dismal scenario for Sarkozy’s party.

Socialists took the crown jewel, Paris, in 2001, and were almost sure to hold on to it today. Leftists also dominate in Lyon.

The municipal elections have less to do with party affiliation than other elections, and most voters say they cast their ballot based on local issues such as parks, public transport and garbage collection.

But the race is also a gauge of how the French rate Sarkozy’s performance. Ten months after his election, France’s economy remains sluggish and Sarkozy has backed off from many of the sweeping reforms that he promised on the campaign trail. A UMP loss today could weaken Sarkozy’s bid to live up to his promises of economic, social and institutional reforms.

Voter Bernard de Jahn said the national overtones of today’s elections were undeniable. He said he cast his ballot in a show of support for Sarkozy.

“He might take a bruising, but I think he’ll come out of it OK in the long run,” said de Jahn, speaking in Paris’ smart 16th district.

The outcome of the elections could hinge on voter turnout and the weight of the small, new centrist party Modem, which could play kingmaker in more than a dozen races.

Headed by longtime centrist Francois Bayrou, Modem has struck alliances that defy political convictions. It is backing the Socialist candidate in Marseille and the right in Toulouse.

The municipal elections coincide with a recent plunge in Sarkozy’s popularity. His ratings have steadily slipped in the wake of a series of angry public outbursts, a widely publicized divorce, and a quick courtship and marriage to former model and singer Carla Bruni.

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