2012-06-17 13:31:58

Socialists Leading in France

PARIS - France voted in a parliamentary run-off on Sunday expected to hand President Francois Hollande's Socialist party a majority and strengthen his position in legislative battles over euro zone crisis policy.

A clear majority reliant neither on opposition conservatives nor eurosceptic hard leftists, as opinion polls suggest, would be a boon as Hollande prepares legislation to raise taxes, adjust budget spending and ratify an EU fiscal discipline pact.

Yet with Sunday's election in Greece threatening to tip Europe into chaos and French voters already weary of belt-tightening, Hollande will have no time to bask in glory.

Opinion polls and projections from last Sunday's first-round vote suggest the Socialist bloc could achieve the 289 seats needed for a majority in the 577-member National Assembly even without adding seats from its Green Party allies.

Added to its control of the Senate and the presidency, that would give the Socialists more power than they have ever held and should leave Hollande's largely social democratic and pro-Europe cabinet broadly intact.

"I hope the Socialists get a majority. It's got to be better than power-sharing: at least they will be able to get something done," said Philippe Jauseau, 47, a computer engineer voting in Paris.

Hollande, who won power last month, will fly to Mexico on Monday with voting slips barely counted for the first of a flurry of summits. His decision to side with southern nations weary of austerity has opened a rift with Europe's paymaster Germany that the Socialist needs to fix fast.

In recent days, he has toned down calls for joint euro zone bonds - bowing to Berlin's insistence that this is a long-term prospect - and is pushing instead for 120 billion euros in short-term stimulus measures.

Hollande may struggle to keep eurosceptic Socialist lawmakers behind him if he agrees to Germany's demand for deeper fiscal and political integration in Europe.

He may also encounter left-wing resistance if a public finance audit due by end-June shows France must slow spending promises to meet its deficit goals, as it is expected to do.

"Hollande's biggest political test will be to keep his party united if he is forced to adopt economic policies that are unpopular with the electorate," political analyst Antonio Barroso of Eurasia Group said in a note to clients.


Initial results will be released at 8 p.m., the same time the world will learn whether Greece has elected an anti-austerity party whose victory could undermine its euro zone membership and send shockwaves through financial markets.

Many in France hope the new government can give impetus to the euro zone's second largest economy, where unemployment has hit a 13-year high of 10 percent. With heavy commercial and banking links to southern Europe, many fear France could be in the firing line should the euro zone crisis spread.

"This vote is important. It's about the French people being heard: we need someone who can sort this mess out," said Michele, 59, a bakery employee in Paris, who said her main concern was France's underfunded retirement system. "It'll be my turn in a few years and I just want to know if I'll be able to live decently."

Hollande's chief ministers, including Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, were elected in round one by scoring more than 50 percent of votes. Those in run-off contests, like Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, are expected to win their seats.

Hollande's former partner Segolene Royal faces an uphill battle in the western city of La Rochelle against a popular dissident Socialist candidate.

In all, 36 deputies were elected outright last weekend and 541 constituencies are up for grabs on Sunday.

A survey by Ipsos-Logica Business Consulting published on Friday showed Hollande's Socialist bloc could win between 284 and 313 deputies and that the Greens could take 14 to 20 seats.

The radical Left Front coalition, whose leader Jean-Luc Melenchon was knocked out of the running for a seat representing a poor northern town by Le Pen, is set to win 12 to 13 seats.

Marine Le Pen's National Front is looking at up to three seats, and the conservatives, fractured since their leader Nicolas Sarkozy was ousted as president in May, are set for 192 to 226 seats.

That would still leave Hollande short of the two-thirds majority he would need for any constitutional changes, such as legislation to give EU institutions more power over the budget.

"My hypothesis is that after the summer there will be social upheaval as people will no longer be able to voice frustration via the ballot box," political expert Dominique Reynie said.

There has been concern over voter fatigue at France's fourth election in eight weeks. Turnout at midday was 21.4 percent, in line with a first round final abstention rate of 43 percent.

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