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Published March 24, 2010, 10:39 AM

France’s Sarkozy defiant on reforms after blistering election loss for his party

PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Wednesday to press on with controversial economic and social reforms in his first public comments since his fellow conservatives lost badly in French regional elections over the weekend.

By: Jamey Keaten, Associated Press

PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Wednesday to press on with controversial economic and social reforms in his first public comments since his fellow conservatives lost badly in French regional elections over the weekend.

Speaking after the reshuffled Cabinet’s first meeting, Sarkozy acknowledged the message sent by voters, but his defiant tone seemed aimed at conservative constituencies like farmers, business and the extreme right.

Sarkozy called for a ban on full-face Islamic veils, said he would be ready to clash with France’s EU partners to defend agriculture subsidies, and would press on with pension reforms despite social tensions.

“I say it clearly: I am ready to go to a crisis in (the European Union) before I accept the dismantling of the Common Agricultural Policy,” Sarkozy said of the EU farms policy. “I will not let our agriculture die.”

Sarkozy insisted that the economic crisis had masked the impact of his government’s reforms, but acknowledged the anxieties of the French: “You have often the feeling that these reforms haven’t changed your daily lives.”

“I understand your impatience, I owe you a response,” he said. “But nothing would be worse than to change tack on everything by giving in to the agitation of an electoral period.”

Sarkozy’s words were a far cry from his winning campaign in 2007, when he vowed a “rupture” from the policies of his conservative predecessor Jacques Chirac.

“The president’s role is ensure stability, continuity and set a line and avoid jolts,” Sarkozy said. “We must show constancy on some choices — we must continue the reforms. To stop now would ruin our achievements.”

“The crisis must not drive us to slow down.”

Sarkozy defended state support for industry, vowed continued investment in research and higher education, and decried the “plague” of absenteeism in French schools.

The Socialist-led opposition won 21 of 22 regions up for grabs in mainland France in Sunday’s vote, which was dominated by worries about jobs, paychecks and pensions during the worst French recession since World War II.

On Tuesday, the government backed down from a plan to tax carbon dioxide emissions that had been a major plank of Sarkozy’s push for a more prominent role in the global fight against climate change. Polls indicated most French opposed the measure, fearful in part of higher gasoline prices and an unfair, self-imposed disadvantage for French businesses and consumers.

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