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Local Elections Deal Setbacks to German, French Leaders

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were both punished at the polls.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were both punished at the polls.

Germany's ruling party has lost control of a traditional stronghold to the Greens in a blistering election defeat that Chancellor Angela Merkel says will leave a "deep wound" on her party, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives took an equally severe beating in local polls.

Germany's Greens on March 27 celebrated an unprecedented election victory in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a southwestern state governed by Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for almost six decades.

Early results handed the environmental party, buoyed by Japan's nuclear catastrophe, a record 24.2 percent of the vote. They Greens are now likely to lead a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), who garnered about 23.2 percent.

Merkel's CDU and its Free Democrats (FDP) coalition partners, both of which have actively backed nuclear power, won a combined 44.3 percent.

The Greens' candidate, Winfried Kretschmann, who is expected to become the party's first-ever state leader in Germany, hailed a "historic victory."

"It was a real challenge," Kretschmann said. "We challenged people, we were challenged, and now we have succeeded in achieving a historic change in this state."

'Bitter Day' For CDU

The election is seen as the most important in the seven state ballots that Germany will hold this year. Baden-Wuerttemberg is an influential state home to 11 million people and a host of industrial giants that include carmakers Daimler and Porsche.

The Greens also made strong advances in separate elections on March 27 in Rhineland-Palatinate state, where the Social Democrats retained power and were likely to form a coalition with the Greens.

The defeated parties did not hide their disappointment.

A dejected Merkel told a news conference today it would take her party a long time to recover from the blow.

"We lost our majority there and that's painful. It's a deep wound in the history of Baden-Wuerttemberg and also in the history of the CDU," Merkel said.

"The pain from this loss won't go away in just one day. We'll have to work for a long time to overcome the pain from this defeat, together with our friends in Baden-Wuerttemberg."

Stefan Mappus, the CDU's premier in Baden-Wuerttemberg, called the elections a "bitter day" both for him and for his region.

The CDU's debacle comes just one month after the party was ousted in Hamburg. Merkel's party also lost control of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, last May.

Nuclear Referendum

Analysts predict the latest loss will not bring a change of leadership within the CDU, Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, today dismissed speculation of a cabinet reshuffle.

The vote is nonetheless widely viewed as a referendum on her center-right coalition's recent performance, particularly on the nuclear issue.

The nuclear crisis in Japan prompted Merkel last week to shut down seven of Germany's 17 nuclear plants, two of them in Baden-Wuerttemberg, pending a safety review.

The decision came after her government last year amended a decade-old plan to abandon nuclear technology by 2021 by extending the plants' lifetime by 12 years -- an abrupt change of heart that has hurt her credibility among voters.

The election results bode particularly ill for the FDP, whose 5 percent garnered on March 27 -- the minimum threshold to enter parliament -- cast doubt on the party's survival.

In a stern address to his supporters, Foreign Minister and FDP leader Guido Westerwelle said: "This is a difficult evening for us liberals. We lost the election today. We are disappointed by the election outcome."

Far Right Gains In France

The defeat of Merkel's conservatives was mirrored in local elections on March 27 in France, where voters dealt a severe blow to the conservative party of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) took only 20 percent of the vote, while the opposition Socialist Party garnered nearly 36 percent in the second round of balloting in the country's cantons.

The vote also consolidated the surge of the far-right National Front, which scored 11.7 percent despite putting up candidates in only a few areas.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who took over from her father Jean-Marie in January, said the vote heralded a "revolution."

"This spring 2011 marks the start of a political reshuffle, of a pacifist, democratic, and patriotic revolution -- a 'Bleu Marine' revolution," Marie Le Pen said.

"I invite all the French who long for a great change, a real national and republican alternative, to join us and together to prepare for a victory in the 2012 presidential elections."

This is the first time the National Front has won elections in at least two cantons, raising fears Le Pen could make it to the second round of the presidential election next year, just like her father did in 2002.

compiled from agency reports