Sarkozy’s party defeated in France’s regional elections

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party was soundly defeated in the final round of France’s regional elections held Sunday, in a sign of widespread disapproval of the administration two years before the next presidential election.

A coalition of left-wing parties successfully garnered 54.3% of the vote, versus 36.1% for the right, according to an Opinion Way preliminary poll. The far-right National Front party won 8.7% of national votes, but took more than 20% of votes in certain regions.

The results were widely viewed as a message to the administration led by Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, which has failed to secure the confidence of voters rocked by an ongoing economic crisis and rising unemployment.

Regional elections are traditionally an opportunity for voters to evaluate the administration’s performance, but also remain focused on local issues such as transportation. The last regional election, held in 2004, ended with a similar strong win for the Socialist Party, giving it control of the majority of France’s regional administrative councils.

But high voter absenteeism, reaching nearly 50% on Sunday, versus nearly 35% during the 2004 elections, appeared to mean both dissatisfaction with the existing UMP policies, and the left.

Though the sidewalks were packed in Paris on a rare warm Sunday afternoon, only a few people trickled in and out of voting booths.

Pascal Maillot, 41, said he voted for the left, but still doubted Socialists would be able to win the next election in 2012. “The left still needs to get itself together. You can’t have a winner without a leader.”

Today’s vote “sends a message to Sarkozy, but it’s also not so calming for the left,” said political analyst Isabelle Veyrat-Masson at France’s CNRS national research center.

Nevertheless, France’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, acknowledged in a televised speech that “the results confirm the success of the left. . . . We weren’t able to convince.”

He also was careful to insist that Sunday’s vote focused on local issues.

“We don’t govern a great country like France according to the rhythm of local elections. . . . We’ll stay the course on national elections,” Fillon said.

Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon saw things differently. “The Socialist Party has come out stronger with these elections,” Hamon said in an interview, brushing aside concerns that his group lacks clear leadership.

“The next step for us is the 2012 elections. The French can’t take Sarkozy’s politics, which favor the privileged, anymore,” he said. “We’ll continue to form coalitions and regroup on the left, in order to beat Sarkozy at the next presidential election.”

Sarkozy’s popularity has remained consistently low, and he is surprisingly less popular than his prime minister, Fillon.

Since a prime minister represents the policies of his president, the difference in popularity can be attributed to a personality preference, Veyrat-Masson said.

Sarkozy’s lavish vacations and expensive clothing as well as some occasionally vulgar outbursts caught on tape have fueled disapproval, she said.

The government’s attempts at cutting back on spending, including state-financed jobs, while threatening to increase the age of retirement have also not helped its popularity.

When the economy is in crisis, people tend to “favor leftist policies, because they want more state protection . . . and now they think the Socialists will protect them,” said Veyrat-Masson.

Lauter is a special correspondent.