Sarkozy plots strategy after French Senate loss

AP News
Posted: Sep 26, 2011 10:00 AM
Sarkozy plots strategy after French Senate loss

President Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election prospects are looking tough: A swirling corruption scandal has ensnared two of his allies, and his conservative party lost control of the Senate for the first time in a half-century.

The French leader huddled with allies on Monday to plot strategy a day after the opposition left won elections and seized control of the upper house of parliament for the first time since 1958.

Aside from the political travails, Sarkozy has been beset by economic troubles: France's gaping budget deficit, lackluster growth and persistently high unemployment have limited his room for maneuver.

In recent weeks, Sarkozy's prospects had at last been looking up: France helped Libyan rebels topple Moammar Gadhafi and his dismal poll numbers appeared on the mend. The Socialist Party appeared riddled with dissent, and far from uniting behind a presidential candidate.

But now, the Senate drubbing and the creep of an alleged corruption scandal into Sarkozy's inner circle is threatening to dent his image again, and even some conservatives are clamoring for a change of policy.

"The political truth is that this (Senate election) is a serious warning for our majority," Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire, who heads the platform committee for Sarkozy's UMP party, told Radio Classique.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a conservative former prime minister, said on France-Info radio: "We must learn the lessons from this vote, soften the government's policies" _ notably with regard to domestic reforms that had more of an impact on the Senate results than Libya.

After meeting with Prime Minister Francois Fillon and UMP party boss Jean-Francois Cope on Monday, Sarkozy's office announced a minor tweak to his Cabinet after the Senate vote: Chantal Jouanno, who won a seat in the Senate, was removed from her post as sports minister. She'll be replaced by former Olympic judo champion David Douillet, who is now junior minister for French citizens overseas.

The lower house of parliament still has the upper hand on legislation, and Sarkozy's party still controls that chamber by a wide margin. But the loss of control of the Senate could stall his reform agenda _ and all but spells the end of his hopes for an amendment to the Constitution that would require a balanced budget. Such a reform would need overwhelming support of lawmakers from both houses.

While the Socialist-led victory Sunday boosted optimism on the left, many political watchers acknowledge that Sarkozy _ despite relatively low poll numbers _ remains a formidable opponent, and will be hard to dislodge.

Meanwhile, an ongoing, years-long drama over an alleged corruption scandal has drawn close to Sarkozy in recent days _ with the risk of political fallout as the presidential election nears. The Socialists have been stepping up their calls for a full investigation.

Investigators are probing whether a French defense deal in the 1990s with Pakistan involving suspected kickbacks set the stage for a Karachi car bombing in 2003 that killed 15 people _ mostly French defense contractors.

The case centers on suspected kickbacks from the defense deal that could have benefited the former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's failed 1995 campaign for president _ claims Balladur has strongly denied. Sarkozy served as Balladur's budget minister, and was his campaign's spokesman.

Last week, an investigating judge filed preliminary charges linked to alleged corruption against two Sarkozy allies _ Nicolas Bazire and Thierry Gaubert. The president's office has insisted Sarkozy is not mentioned in any documents linked to the probe, and many allies have taken to the airwaves to insist he's not involved, call for the judicial process to run its full course and denounce unfair guilt by association by some Sarkozy detractors.