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Europe

Setback for Conservatives in French Regional Vote

The reform plans of French Prime Minister Raffarin face an uncertain future after voters Sunday rejected the ruling center-right parties in a first round of regional elections.

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Tough times for Raffarin.

Upset with state spending cuts and the reform course of Raffarin's government, French voters soundly rejected conservative candidates. The poll is considered a mid-term test for President Jacques Chirac, whose popularity has hit the lowest low since his re-election in 2002.

Mainstream left parties polled 40.6 percent, while the center-right trailed with around 34 percent of the vote. The far-right National Front confirmed its popularity, gaining over 16 percent of the electorate's ballots.

Prime Minister Jean-Marie Raffarin said he would "take into account" the results, without predicting any policy changes. His government has introduced reforms aimed at lowering the country's high social welfare costs, provoking strikes among hospital workers, teachers and researchers.

Raffarin took a personal beating in his home region of Poitou-Charentes, which he led for 14 years before becoming prime minister, as the Socialists received 11.7 percent more of the vote than the center-right coalition.

"The people have made a big statement. And this statement is to punish the government's policies," Socialist Party chief Francois Hollande pronounced.

Troubled times for Raffarin

"Bye-bye Raffarin," the left-wing daily Liberation wrote of the vote. "There are strong chances that the days of the Raffarin government are numbered," Les Echos business daily commented. If the conservatives do as poorly in the second round of voting next Sunday, Chirac is expected to reshuffle his cabinet, possibly putting an end to Raffarin's term as prime minister.

Leftwing parties, including the Socialists, Communists and Greens, won 18 of the 22 mainland regions, while the ruling center-right parties only led in the remaining four. No party won an outright majority in any of the mainland or four overseas regions.

The polls reversed the results of parliamentary elections in 2002, when the center-right won over 43 percent of the vote, the left received around 37 percent and the National Front polled just over 11 percent.

Fear of National Front

Regionalwahl in Frankreich: Le Pen

French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen (right) and Guy Macary after the regional elections vote. Guy Macary is the far-right candidate in the Provence-Alps-Cote d'Azur region.

This time, with 16.24 percent, the National Front just missed leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's aim to surpass the 16.9 percent he himself polled in the 2002 presidential race that put the populist in second place behind Chirac. The party will contest seats in 19 of the 22 mainland regions in the second round.

Politicians from mainstream parties are already rallying to prevent the National Front from gaining ground on Sunday. "It is absolutely vital that there is a republican front as there was during the presidential elections," said Socialist Elisabeth Guigou, a former justice minister.

France's regional governments decide on local issues, such as education, transport, tourism, environment and cultural policy. They are set to receive more competencies regarding economic matters, public health, education and culture in 2005.

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