This is bad. At least three of President Sarkozy’s enemies have now made a comeback: the French left, the far-right Front National and Dominique de Villepin, who appears to have been buoyed by UMP’s defeat and a new poll that showed the French preferred de Villepin to Sarkozy as UMP leader.
It will be interesting to see how Sarkozy copes. Until now, he has not had any significant set-backs, but a defeat of this kind halfway into a five-year mandate cannot be dismissed. So far, his reaction has been limited. He has reshuffled his government ousting labour minister Xavier Darcos and replacing him with the budget minister Eric Woerth. Darcos would have lead negotiations over the contested pension reform, something that now requires the greatest finesse if it is not to spark further problems. In a move intended to assuage conservatives, Francois Baroin, a confidante of ex-President Jacques Chirac, will take over from Woerth.
Marc-Philippe Daubresse was named youth minister and Martin Hirsch, the high commissioner for social affairs and youth employment, left the government and will head the state’s Civic Service Agency. But perhaps more important was the appointment of Georges Tron who will take on a new post in charge of the civil service. Tron is a de Villepin ally and his appointment is seen as an attempt by Sarkozy of weakening his sworn enemy. Finance Minister Christine Lagarde remains in her post as does Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister who was rumoured to be on the way out.
This may be enough for now. The UMP still controls parliament with a big majority, and polls have shown that French voters know the country needs reform on difficult issues like pensions. The Socialists will savour their victory, but are still riddled with internal rivalries. Their leader, Martine Aubry, has been strengthened but once the race for a presidential contender gets under way, expect the fights between her, Segolene Royal and even Dominique Straus-Kahn to re-emerge. Don’t write off Sarkozy yet; he has emerged from political defeats before, and could bounce back after this setback too. Allons-y, le comeback kid.