Page last updated at 02:12 GMT, Saturday, 13 March 2010

Sarkozy's party faces Socialist drubbing

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

Nicolas Sarkozy, 11 March 2010
Nicolas Sarkozy's popularity ratings have been sinking

"There's a big problem in France," grumbled President Nicolas Sarkozy on a visit to eastern France this week. "The mixing up of issues all the time."

The French leader was referring to this Sunday's regional election, the first of two rounds of voting.

The ballot is meant to be about regional issues such as local transport provision and economic initiatives.

But with unemployment now soaring above 10% and the president's popularity ratings sinking to just 36%, voters are bound to use this opportunity to punish the central government.

"Regional elections, regional consequences. National elections, national consequences," President Sarkozy insisted. But he must know that his words will fall on deaf ears.

Turning pink

This is the last time the French people will go to the polls before the presidential elections in 2012.

And analysts will be studying the results carefully for clues as to which party looks likely to win the race to the Elysee.

Every indication points to a massive defeat for the ruling, right-wing UMP party and a huge victory for the Socialist opposition.

The UMP under Sarkozy has made its position harsher and moved to the right to catch the National Front
Olivier Ferrand
Left-wing think tank Terra Nova

On a national level the Socialists are still in disarray over leadership struggles, but regionally they are extremely strong.

They currently hold every mainland region in France except Corsica and the eastern region of Alsace, and this time they are hoping to turn the whole of the country pink.

Olivier Ferrand of the left-wing think tank Terra Nova believes the French political landscape is changing in their favour.

"The key point is that the Christian Democrat electorate, which used to vote for the right, has now moved left," he explains.

"That's because the UMP under Sarkozy has made its position harsher and moved to the right to catch the National Front, the extreme right electorate.

"As a result, the Christian Democrats didn't follow... now they vote for the left."

Nepotism row

Many of the president's recent policies have proved extremely unpopular with voters.

His debate on national identity sparked accusations of racism, while his (since abandoned) plan to install his son as head of the agency in charge of the business district in Paris was met with outrage.

Jean Sarkozy, October 2009
A plan to give Jean Sarkozy a top job sparked outrage

Planned reforms of regional governments, pensions and the judicial system have also proved deeply divisive.

Many here feel the French leader, who has done little to hide his love of fame and fortune, has alienated himself from the people.

But Charles Jaigu, a journalist with the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, rejects accusations that the president is too Paris-centric.

"He's the first president who has travelled so much in the regions!" he laughs.

"He's done at least one trip every week in 'la France Profonde' (Deep France) since he was elected."

But despite countless visits and numerous TV and radio appearances, the message is not getting through.

It seems that French people feel talked at, rather than listened to.

Spending power

And what happened to all those promises to make poor people richer?

At the agricultural fair in Paris last week, Bruno, a foie gras producer, took time away from his stall to tell us why Mr Sarkozy will not be getting his vote.

Martine Aubry at the international agricultural fair in Paris, 3 March 2010
Martine Aubry has urged people to turn out to vote

"At the moment spending power is right down," he complained.

"We really feel it in the markets. People walk past, they don't buy... it's true at every stall. People are empty-handed. They visit but they don't buy."

Polls suggest that in the second round of voting, the Socialists could take 52% of the vote while the right will scoop just 28%.

Opposition leader Martine Aubry has called for the French people to shake off their apathy and make sure they show up at the ballot box on 14 and 21 March.

"The higher the turnout, the stronger the signal we send to the president!" she told a French newspaper this week.

These may only be regional elections, but the race for the Elysee has already begun.

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