European Elections: A Blow to Brown, Boost for Merkel

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Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

Polling-station workers count ballots on a table as the polls close in the European Parliament election in Marseille, France

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A Relatively Strong Showing for Sarkozy

It's difficult to speak of winners in France's European parliamentary election on Sunday, given that almost 60% of French adults voted with their derrières by staying at home and avoiding the democratic process altogether. But those who did turn up rewarded two unlikely and rival contestants: the ruling party of France's unpopular President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and a union of traditionally marginal environmental parties now challenging the Socialists for leadership of the nation's leftist opposition.

Sarkozy's rightist Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) claimed first place with 27.9% of the Euro vote. The result marks the first time a sitting French President's party has won a European election since 1979. That success in avoiding the traditional midterm European protest vote was all the more significant against Sarkozy's modest 43% approval rating, as well as polls indicating the public continues to frown on how he and his government have responded to the global financial crisis. Despite all that, ruling conservatives came within four points of Sarkozy's commanding 31.1% score during the first round of French presidential polling in 2007. "The penalty vote was penalized by French voters," quipped UMP secretary-general Xavier Bertrand.

Rivals on both the left and right have noted that the result still means more than 70% of voters backed parties hostile to Sarkozy and his Cabinet. True, but it brings little comfort to the crowded landscape of government opponents — especially the Socialist Party (PS), whose position as the left's leading political force is now in question. The faction-riven Socialists won just 16.5%, far short of the 28.9% it won in European elections in 2004 and dangerously close to its worst showing ever, 14.5% in 1994.

By seeking to turn the European campaign into a referendum on Sarkozy's leadership, the Socialists found themselves outflanked by the Europe Ecologie movement, a collection of diverse environmentalist parties. The grouping's seven-month campaign, which fused environmental messages with those of European construction and leadership, apparently appealed to voters: Europe Ecologie won 16.3%, and in so doing, staked a claim to a leadership role on the left in both France and the European Parliament. "Our first big action will be negotiating a [leftist] majority," proclaimed Europe Ecologie official Daniel Cohn-Bendit — the Franco-German ecologist who first gained fame as the iconic leader of radical students during France's May 1968 uprising before becoming a moving force in the European Parliament. "I have already spoken with the President of the European Socialist Party, Nyrup Rasmussen, to try to form a majority."
— Bruce Crumley / Paris

Go to Page 4 to read about the election in Germany.

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