Bertrand Delanoë, re-elected Mayor of Paris



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French municipal elections offer
Sarkozy some crumbs of comfort

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

18 March 2008: In 2005 the French legislature extended the mandates of the country's 36,783 mayors by one year, arguing that it would be unfair to hold local elections as scheduled alongside the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections. Unfair on whom, it could be asked. Certainly not Nicolas Sarkozy, who would have been viewing a very different map of town hall control had the poll been held in 2007, the year of his party's dual electoral triumph and the beginning of splits within the opposition Socialist Party (PS), still recoiling at losing three presidential elections on the trot and watching from the sidelines.

But 2008 was not the total drubbing of the centre-right that the PS sought, as much as the media and opposition may have willed it, with Sarkozy's centre-right UMP clinging on in Le Havre, Marseille, Nice and Orleans.

This dual outcome was best described by left-leaning daily Liberation with its post-first round headline ‘The left resuscitated, the right not crucified’. As the tally of mayoral victories by the PS over the UMP filtered through, the retention of Marseille by incumbent Jean-Claude Gaudin demonstrated that some voters may have refused to play along with the media script of a total humiliation for the beleaguered Sarkozy. The right also scored a first round victory in Haute-Loire capital le Puy-en-Velay, a UMP gain from the PS, while in Calais they removed the Communists' local administration after four decades in power. The Communists also lost Paris' satellite commune of Montreuil, held since 1984, to a Green.

Sarkozy's own script, penned in 2007 following his consecutive victories over Ségolène Royal and the PS in the presidential poll and in the subsequent parliamentary elections (followed by sowing the seeds of division in the PS by co-opting many of its best known figures into his administration), saw the 2008 municipal polls as his next stage of destroying the main opposition party, even hoping to take back the former stronghold of the French capital. In the event, UMP candidates pretended this was a localised affair and nothing to do with their 'un-presidential' leader. This strategy was best summed up by former prime minister turned Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, who pleaded before his first round victory on 9 March, "Let my friends forget me a while,"

In Lille, Montpellier and Rennes the PS won re-election, while its candidates defeated right-wing incumbent mayors in Strasbourg and Toulouse. Socialist challengers also defeated UMP incumbents in Reims, Amiens, Saint-Etienne, Caen, Blois and Quimper. In all the PS took back town halls in 38 urban centres with populations of 20,000 or more, almost making up for the 40 cities it lost in the last set of municipal elections in 2001.

In a further blow to the right, education minister Xavier Darcos lost the mayoralty in Perigueux and junior minister Rama Yade failed to take the Colombes mayoralty. Other members of the Sarkozy administration fared better, Mayor Jean-Marie Bockel, who last year left the PS to form his own centre-left party, Gauche Moderne, held on in Mulhouse despite a strong challenge by his former party.

Of course, Delanoë's almost scripted second round victory on 16 March was seen as the litmus test of his potential to lead his party, potentially as challenger to Sarkozy’s hopes of retaining the presidency in 2012. Bertrand Delanoë was first elected to the Paris city council in 1977, the year its first reconstituted mayor Jacques Chirac won victory and kept the capital Gaullist for a generation, before stints as prime minister and then two terms as president. The capital's mayoralty could yet prove to be a springboard to the presidency once more, not least as the PS may prefer to rally behind a candidate with a record of proven delivery.

As Bruno Cautres, an analyst at Paris political consultants Cevipof put it: "The economy, employment, social tensions: he has all the elements he needs to prove himself as a national- level politician, not just a mayor." While the vacancy to lead the party does not yet exist, current leader François Hollande's failure to inflict outright country-wide humiliation, in spite of lauding the PS' targets being met, on Sarkozy at a time when the president is languishing in record levels of unpopularity shows that a competent organiser at the top is required if the party is ever to lever the Gaullists out the Élysée Palace.

Elsewhere in Paris, Delanoë's principal challenger Françoise de Panafieu fended off a Socialist challenge in her own arrondissement, the 17th, though his predecessor as Paris mayor, Jean Tiberi, narrowly clung on in the 5th. Justice minister Rachida Dati topped the list in the solidly UMP 7th, in spite of vociferous criticism for her own role in the "un-presidential" administration, though she has not yet indicated if she will take office as local mayor or hand it over to a deputy.

The vitality of the French centrists, currently organised as MoDem, is called into question by their 2 per cent showing nationwide, including the first round loss of Rouen. Party leader François Bayrou failed to take the city of Pau, contrasted with the 19 per cent he received as third placed candidate in last year's presidential election. Overall, the PS won 49.3 per cent while the centre-right won 47.6 per cent of votes nationwide. Turnout, at 62 per cent for municipal races and 55 per cent for regional assembly elections, is the lowest since 1959, offering Sarkozy some comfort over the level of scorn for his administration by the public.

Socialists hope for significant
gains in French local elections

26 February 2008: Having been delayed in 2007 owing to the national elections, the French municipal elections in March 2008 are the first electoral test for President Nicolas Sarkozy. Amid recent strikes and protests, the elections look likely to provided an uncomfortable ride for the President’s centre-right supporters. As well as Socialist Bertrand Delanoë's re-election attempt in Paris, the other important races are in the regional centres of Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, Nice and Toulouse.

The two rounds of the 2008 French municipal elections will take place on March 9 and 16 in 36,783 municipalities. In addition to the delayed character of these elections, with an additional year's mandate for all incumbents, they are also notable for being the first in which registered residents from other EU member states can participate and for the 30 or so races where the three main parties have selected candidates from ethnic backgrounds to head their lists. In addition to the headline race for the capital's mayoralty, there are some sideshow races of national character, such as Dior-loving Justice Minister Rachida Dati's candidature for Sarkozy's in Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) the 7th arrondissement in Paris and Alain Juppé, defeated in the 2007 parliamentary elections, and his re-election race in Bordeaux. The Senegal-born junior foreign minister Rama Yade will also run this March.

In the 2001 races, one of the main victories for the left, other than Paris, occurred in Lyon, where Socialist Gérard Collomb replaced former centrist prime minister, the late Raymond Barre. Collomb is projected to retain the mayoralty of the commercial hub against a divided right, who are fielding former UMP minister Dominique Perben. France's second city of Marseille will see two term incumbent Jean-Claude Gaudin, a former minister for city planning and current number two in the UMP, face off against Socialist senator Jean-Noel Guérini and far-right leader Bruno Mégret. While in Bordeaux Alain Juppé will face a formal challenge from Socialist regional leader Alain Rousset, his popularity and support from centrists mean any UMP electoral upset here is highly unlikely.

Even in right-leaning Nice, defeat for the UMP will only occur if two-term incumbent, far-right UMP senator Jacques Payrat, defeats the official UMP candidate, the junior minister and Sarkozy ally Christian Estrosi. However, following his defeat in the 2007 legislative elections, the UMP's Jean-Luc Moudenc could potentially lose the city of Toulouse for his party against a Socialist challenge by Pierre Cohen. Having taken Strasbourg from the left in 2001, Fabienne Keller of the UMP is predicted to lose against a resurgent Socialist campaign in the second round.

It is of course Paris that garners most attention, having been a stronghold for the right since the reintroduction of the mayoral post in 1977, memorably held by Jacques Chirac between then and 1995 but lost to the Socialists in 2001 following a wave of city hall scandals and a divided right.

The 2001 victory projected Delanoë onto the national stage and secured the city for the Socialists for the foreseeable future, thanks to steady progress on his agenda. In spite of Sarkozy's boasts of last year, the UMP challenge led by 17th arrondissement mayor and former tourism minister Françoise de Panafieu is struggling to make any headway beyond the UMP's core vote and left to denounce both the national character of the race and her opponent's presidential ambitions, hoping perhaps this underdog strategy could at least generate some last minute support for her flagging campaign.

Conscious of her opponent's popularity for innovative schemes such as Vélib, she has instead sought to portray him as ignorant of ordinary Parisians, rich and poor, and as favouring the interests of the younger middle class professionals of the city centre. The same voters who backed Sarkozy nationally feel no contradiction in voting for their charismatic left-leaning mayor. While Delanoë is confident of victory across the city, his UMP opponents hope to increase their tally of arrondissement mayoralties under their control.


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