PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised on Wednesday not to slacken the pace of reform after voters inflicted a crushing defeat on his centre-right UMP party in regional elections at the weekend.
“We have to continue with reforms. Stopping now would simply be to ruin what has already been achieved,” Sarkozy said in a televised speech after the regular weekly cabinet meeting.
In his first public response to the election, in which the centre right achieved one of its worst results since the creation of the Fifth Republic more than 50 years ago, Sarkozy said he understood public impatience but that change was needed.
“Our country has suffered too much from hesitation and incessant changes of course,” said Sarkozy, who in a newspaper interview before the election said there would be a halt in the pace of reforms at the end of 2011.
An unemployment rate running at more than 10 percent, worries over security and immigration and disapproval of Sarkozy’s own restless style, which may voters judge to be un-presidential, all contributed to the defeat.
High abstention levels and a resurgence in support for the far-right National Front also underlined the disillusion which many from the broader conservative camp feel towards Sarkozy, who faces a re-election battle in 2012.
The president has already moved to quell discontent in his own ranks, bringing in three new ministers from sections of the UMP that have long been sceptical towards him and dropping a domestic tax on carbon dioxide emissions.
He repeated his promise to cut social charges on employment and not to raise taxes and vowed to push ahead with a promised reform to cut the widening funding gap in the public pension system later this year.
“I will not force anything through. We will take the time needed for discussions with unions and employers but I promise you that before six months, just and necessary measures will have been taken,” he said.
The opposition Socialists said the speech, which contained no new policy announcements, was aimed simply at reassuring the president’s own centre-right camp.
“This was a speech aimed at re-establishing himself with the electorate on the right rather than re-establishing the international competitiveness of France,” said Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, a senior Socialist deputy.
Sarkozy confirmed Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s announcement of an indefinite delay to the carbon tax that had been due to come into force in July, saying he preferred to impose a tax at the borders of the European Union.
“It would be absurd to tax French companies by giving a competitive advantage to countries which pollute,” he said.
The planned tax, one of the key elements in the Green agenda Sarkozy pushed early in his term, had been highly unpopular in the UMP as well as farmers, companies and motorists.
Sarkozy repeated his longstanding calls for stronger protection for European industry, saying that “unfair competition” had been accepted for too long.
He also said he would risk a crisis in Europe rather than abandon French farmers, traditional supporters of the centre right who have been increasingly vocal about the rapidly increasing difficulty of making a living on the land.