French government sees no policy shift after vote

17/03/2008 - 11:15

By James Mackenzie

PARIS (Reuters) - French government leaders ruled out anymajor policy shifts on Monday after heavy losses by the rulingcentre-right in local elections stepped up pressure onPresident Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Democracy would go crazy if we started to shake everythingup nine months after the presidential election on the basis ofa local election result," government spokesman Laurent Wauquieztold France Inter radio on Monday.

The opposition Socialists seized power in local electionsat the weekend from the right in dozens of towns and citiesacross France as voters concerned about the soaring cost ofliving deserted Sarkozy's UMP party.

The result, which left the UMP in charge of only three ofFrance's 10 biggest cities and 41 out of 101 localadministrative departments, delivered a serious blow to thepresident since his triumphant election last May.

However Prime Minister Francois Fillon pledged after theearly results on Sunday night to continue the government'seconomic reform agenda and several top officials ruled out anymajor cabinet reshuffle.

Socialist leader Francois Hollande called for an increasein benefits for poorer pensioners and a hike in the minimumwage but said there was little point in changing the cabinet.

"I only want one change, a change in the behaviour of thepresident and a change in his policies," he told RTL radio.

Sarkozy, who said last week that he would "drawconclusions" from the election, is expected to try to burnishhis image as head of state and shed the celebrity trappingsthat have earned him the nickname "President Bling Bling".

His programme for the week ahead points to this newapproach with ceremonies for veterans of both World War One andTwo, a speech on the French language and the launching of anuclear submarine -- all classical presidential activities.

Sarkozy's victory in May was followed by a rush ofannouncements, with tax breaks for homebuyers and overtimework, a rapprochement with the United States and a string ofhigh-profile foreign visits.

But his initial popularity turned down sharply this year asthe economy faltered and Sarkozy proved unable to assuageworries over accelerating inflation.

His restless and occasionally brusque style, his friendshipwith some of France's richest tycoons and his whirlwind romanceand marriage to former supermodel Carla Bruni was felt by manyvoters to be unworthy of the office of president.

But the secretary general of his UMP party PatrickDevedjian denied there was anything in the weekend electionresults that warranted a major change of course.

"That's political life," he said on France 2 television."It was disagreeable for the left in 2001, it's disagreeablefor us in 2008 but it's not a revolution either," he said.

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