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Sarkozy's Party Braces For Electoral Wipeout

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PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy's party braced for a potential electoral wipeout in Sunday's final round of regional elections, which an alliance of the rival left hopes will give it a national sweep and a staging ground for 2012 presidential voting.

Even damage control was difficult for the conservatives.

Sarkozy's UMP party, or Union for a Popular Majority, has ended up pleading with voters to go to the polls, hoping supporters simply failed to cast ballots in the first round – the case for more than one in two French.

The participation rate was at a historic low in last Sunday's voting – some 46 percent. The Socialist-led left won 53.5 percent of the votes while the UMP-led conservatives had 39.9 percent.

Even with Sarkozy's party, some said voters were being alienated by the president and his high-speed reforms.

Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe said this week that Sarkozy must start "facing reality."

"Reflection is now needed on the pace of reforms, the method in which they are launched and prepared ... how they can be better understood by public confused by the (economic) crisis," he wrote on his blog.

The elections determine control of regional councils concerned with local issues. However, France's regions are gaining increasing power as the country decentralizes. Reflecting the country's grassroots, they can be a valuable mobilizer for the presidential race in which the Socialists are looking to make a comeback.

Hardcore facts of life like jobs, salaries, pensions and defeating the economic crisis are prime concerns to the French. Government ministers, under orders from Sarkozy, fanned out across France in a bid to convince citizens that regionals give them a voice in national projects, from high-speed train lines to the Iter nuclear fusion reactor in southern France.

A pact concluded Tuesday in all but a few regions between the Socialists and Europe Ecologie, an amalgam of green parties, as well as the Front de Gauche, which includes France's Communist Party, could power the left to victories across France.

It's time "to give a good smack to the right, or rather a good left (hook) to the right," Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry said Thursday in an almost triumphal show of force with two other women representing newly-won allies, the ecologists and the Communist Party.

Another lurking danger is the far-right National Front which surprised pollsters with its first-round performance – about 12 percent of the vote. The party's standard-bearers, longtime leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and daughter Marine, scoring nearly 21 percent in the Riviera region and 18 percent in the north respectively made clear that concerns over security, immigration and France's large Muslim population remain alive.

The National Front will be present in 12 of 24 regions in mainland France with potential to siphon off conservative votes.

The governing conservatives went into the voting weak. The Socialists bulldozed their way across France in the last regional elections in 2004, leaving the right holding only two of 24 regions in mainland France – Alsace and Corsica.

Sarkozy's party is now trying to hang on to those rightist bastions and dreams of conquering two far-flung corners of France – Reunion in the Indian Ocean and French Guiana on the northern shoulder of South America.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon castigated the left's "alliances of convenience" as deals that, at best, mean they will share "vice presidencies, commission presidencies and official cars."

Still, no potential votes were being dismissed. No. 2 cabinet minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, head of the Environment Ministry, went to Toulouse on Friday to meet with officials of the tiny France Nature Environment party.