PARIS (AP) — The long-flailing French left made a big-time comeback yesterday, crushing Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives in regional elections colored by voters' economic worries — and informally kicking off the 2012 presidential race.
Cheers resounded from Socialist Party headquarters as leftists swept races from the French Riviera to Paris. With 97 percent of ballots counted, the Socialists and their allies won 54 percent of the vote nationwide, while Sarkozy's UMP party had 35.3 percent, according to the Interior Ministry.
The results show what a rough road the dynamic but increasingly isolated Sarkozy has ahead of him between now and 2012. Nationwide strikes are planned Tuesday by some of those who punished his party Sunday: train drivers angry over pension reforms that are a pillar of his presidential policy, and teachers angry over job cuts. Meanwhile, he faces new challenges from a popular green movement and a reinvigorated extreme right.
Sunday's vote came close to the "grand slam" sweep of all 26 regions that the Socialists were hoping for. Official results showed the conservatives holding on to Alsace but losing control of Corsica. Those were the only two regions run by the right going into the vote, and two closely watched races.
"These elections show that the French are worried," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said. "I take my share of the responsibility." Fillon was to meet with Sarkozy first thing Monday to discuss the election results, but no major fallout was expected. Sarkozy will follow up the elections with a "modest reshuffle" of the government, his chief of staff Claude Gueant said in an interview with the Catholic daily La Croix.
Fillon blamed the recession for his party's bad showing, but warned that France can no longer finance its generous social benefits without cost-cutting and suggested reforms would continue. "We do not govern a great country like France according to the rhythm of local elections," he said.