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3.26.2010 The people say “Non!”

From The Economist print edition

THE only consolation that President Nicolas Sarkozy can take from the defeat of his UMP party in France’s regional elections on March 21st is that it could have been even worse. In the end, the party held on to Alsace, one of only two regions out of 22 in mainland France that it held beforehand. But it lost Corsica, which the right had run for the past 26 years. Overall, the UMP took only 35% of the national vote, against 54% bagged by the Socialist Party and its friends. With the left in triumphant mood, and just two years left before the 2012 presidential election, how much trouble is Mr Sarkozy in?

In some ways, this was a classic mid-term sanction. French regions have relatively few powers. Voters care little, and know even less, about them. Christine Lagarde, the finance minister, confessed that her sons had not voted in the first round because they “couldn’t understand a thing about the regions”. At a time of sluggish growth and 10% unemployment, voters duly took the chance to register a protest against the party in power.

Many did this by staying at home (fully 49% abstained); others responded by drifting to the extremes. The far-right National Front took nearly 18% in the 12 regions in which it had got into the run-off. Jean-Marie Le Pen, its thunderous 81-year-old leader, pulled in 23% in the south of France. His equally fiery daughter, Marine Le Pen, won 22% in the north.

But the apathy of one-time Sarkozy voters helped above all the Socialist Party and Europe Ecologie, its main partner, which chalked up handsome victories. Ségolène Royal, the presidential loser in 2007 and now president of Poitou-Charentes, was re-elected with a hefty 61%. According to Pascal Perrineau, a political scientist, as many as 11.5m voters who had backed Mr Sarkozy for the presidency in 2007 failed to support the UMP this time.

Before the poll, Mr Sarkozy had insisted that this was a regional vote that would have only regional consequences. He ruled out changing his prime minister, François Fillon, whom he kept in the job this week. In a minor reshuffle that may not preclude a bigger one later in the year, Mr Sarkozy retained all the big names. But Xavier Darcos, the hapless labour minister, was pushed out of the government after polling just 28% in Aquitaine.

Yet it would be wrong to read too little into the result. For the first time, Mr Sarkozy has begun to look fallible. His popularity rating fell to 36% in March, its lowest since he took office, according to Ifop, a pollster. Some 58% of respondents, including 21% of his own supporters, told another poll that they did not want him to stand again in 2012. Voters seem confused about where Mr Sarkozy is heading, as he lays into capitalism with one breath even as he urges the French to become more competitive with the other. They are growing disillusioned because of his inability to keep his promises to stem industrial decline and job losses. And they are uneasy about planned pension reforms. Trade unions staged street protests this week, vowing to resist any moves to raise the legal retirement age from 60.

Perhaps most worrying of all, even some on Mr Sarkozy’s own side are starting to query his judgment. Why did he launch a pointless months-long debate about “national identity” if it led only to the resuscitation of the National Front? Why did it take him so long to realise the mistake of letting his undergraduate son run for the head of the board overseeing the development of the La Défense financial district, in Paris?

Until now, Mr Sarkozy has kept such a tight grip on his party that any such doubts were seldom voiced within it. Almost his only critic has been Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister and fierce personal rival, who now plans to set up his own party on the right. But Gaullist grandees and ambitious youngsters alike have begun to speak out. They are fed up with his policy of borrowing figures from the left for top posts. “The Socialists take the jobs, don’t say thank you, and win the elections,” quipped one. They also argue that Mr Sarkozy’s whirlwind of reforms is too confusing. Jean-François Copé, the UMP parliamentary leader, has urged him to “return to fundamentals”. François Baroin, a minister under Jacques Chirac, has said he should slow down reforms altogether.

Mr Sarkozy’s response? This week, he brought Mr Baroin into the government as budget minister, replacing Eric Woerth, who takes Mr Darcos’s place at the labour ministry and is thus in charge of the sensitive pension-reform issue. Mr Sarkozy seems ready for a fight on this and promises to continue with other reforms as well. Yet he is also showing signs of easing off. This week, he abandoned his plans to bring in a carbon tax.

As for the Socialists, described as “dead” only last year, they must take their resurrection a step at a time. Martine Aubry, the party leader since 2008, has clearly gained clout. She has proved that she is more than just a caretaker and can actually win elections. She stitched and held together a solid alliance with greens and communists. Yet the Socialists are their own worst enemies, and their squabbling could undo them. Ms Royal has her eye on the presidency, as does Dominique Strauss-Kahn, boss of the IMF. But history teaches caution. At the 2004 regional election, the Socialists swept the board—only for Ms Royal to fall flat in the presidential election three years later.