Sarkozy to rejig government after poll defeat

PARIS, March 22, 2010 (AFP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy moved to shake up his government on Monday after a humiliating defeat in regional elections put pressure on him to recast his reform drive.

Sarkozy met with his Prime Minister Francois Fillon at the Elysee palace to to plan the cabinet reshuffle following Sunday's debacle, which left Sarkozy's right-wing UMP in charge of only one of France's mainland regions.

The president's chief of staff Claude Gueant dismissed rumours that Fillon would offer to resign after the heavy defeat in the two-round election -- the last ballot-box test of Sarkozy's popularity before the 2012 presidential vote.

But he said that Fillon and Sarkozy at their meeting would discuss a "technical reshuffle" of the government -- signalling a new start in Sarkozy's campaign to persuade France to swallow difficult reforms.

Sarkozy "expected these results to be disappointing. He said before the regionals that an election always has a meaning and a message. He has decided to hear it," Gueant told AFP.

The results were "a big wake-up call for quick and effective action" to tackle unemployment and other effects of the economic crisis, he added.

Fillon admitted the election result "confirms the success of the left's lists. We have not been convincing," he said Sunday after the Socialist-led opposition beat the UMP by around 54 percent to 36.

"This is a disappointment for the governing party. I take my share of responsibility, and tomorrow morning I'll take this up with the president."

The results, announced by the interior ministry, leave Sarkozy's supporters in control of only one of France's 22 mainland regions, their right-wing stronghold of Alsace.

The left, dominated by the Socialist Party, appeared to have held onto the mainland and the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and to have won a tight race to wrest Corsica from the UMP.

"The French have expressed their rejection of the politics of the president and the government," Socialist party leader Martine Aubry said, calling on the left to unite behind a programme to retake power at a national level.

The UMP consoled itself with having taken back French Guyana and the Indian Ocean island of Reunion in the vote to elect the councils that are in charge of transport, education, cultural policy and regional development.

The far-right National Front won more than nine percent of the vote overall, confirming a relative come-back for the anti-immigrant party.

Turnout, although low, was around four percent higher than in last week's first round.

Sarkozy, who still has a comfortable majority in the national parliament, has insisted that the regional poll is not a verdict on central government, but he is expected to order a reshuffle, possibly as early as Monday.

For many French newspapers however, it was the president rather than his government or his prime minister who was to blame for the right's poor electoral showing.

Monday's edition of the Lyon-based paper Le Progres mocked Sarkozy as the "hyper president" who had become the "hyper loser". Le Telegramme, another regional daily, attacked what it described as Sarkozy's autocratic style.

Le Figaro, the national right-wing daily, said the massive desertion of voters who backed Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election "obliges the president to set a new course for the final two years of his five-year term."

The result was another blow to a president whose personal approval ratings are at an all-time low and will likely increase pressure within his own party for a change of direction.

A survey by pollster CSA for Le Parisien newspaper, published Monday, showed 54 percent of respondents agreeing Sarkozy should adopt a "more presidential style" and a third wanted Sarkozy to "slow the pace of his reforms".

Other news