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France headed toward undivided leftist government

Most parliamentary seats still need to be won in a June 17 runoff, but leftist parties enter those contests with the overall best showing, taking 46 percent of French voters.

President François Hollande and the French left took Round 1 yesterday of parliamentary elections that are being closely watched as harbingers of Europe’s political direction at a time of economic crisis.

Most of the individual seats still need to be won in a June 17 runoff. But leftist parties enter those contests with the overall best showing, taking 46 percent of French voters, and setting up Mr. Hollande and his Socialists – who won 36 percent – for a majority needed for a free hand and an undivided government. 

“It’s a very, very good result for the Socialists and François Hollande,” says Arun Kapil of Catholic University in Paris. “But we will see on June 17. I think the Socialists are on track to get a majority on their own.”

Six of Hollande’s 24 declared cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, were elected outright yesterday. But as of this morning’s tally, only about 60 seats of the 577-seat body were decided after the lowest voter turnout (57 percent) since Charles de Gaulle took office in the 1960s.

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Under the election rules, a candidate must receive an outright majority of votes to win in Round 1. Otherwise, all candidates who garner more than 12.5 percent of the vote advance to a runoff.

Winning a clear majority on June 17 would enable Hollande to consolidate power and give heft to programs expected to combine growth with the tough and increasingly controversial austerity-only policies that have dominated Europe’s remedy for its economic crisis and that are favored by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

While characterized by some foreign media as a “tax and spend” liberal, Hollande is in fact a pragmatist who pledges a balanced budget by 2017 and a 3 percent budget deficit next year. The French right is skeptical he can do so.

Like most European politicians in an age of austerity, Hollande’s hand is severely constrained. So far, he has implemented symbolic measures such as cutting his and his ministers’ salaries by 30 percent. He has tinkered with social fairness policies: He did not change the pension reforms of Mr. Sarkozy that moved France‘s generous retirement age from 60 to 62; but he added a caveat allowing those beginning work at age 18 to retire at 60, and to allow females to count part of their pregnancy months. 

But while French voters gave Hollande a boost, he has not yet delivered a knockout blow to the political right.  The main right party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy took 27 percent to bring the conservative majority to a 34 percent total.

“There was no ‘pink landslide,’” said former Prime Minister François Fillon, referring to the vote on the left.

“Without a majority, no laws will be passed,” warned Prime Minister Ayrault after last night’s tally.

The elections appear set to give the French far right party of Marine Le Pen, which is anti-Europe and anti-Islam, its first seats in decades. Ms. Le Pen’s National Front, which is now the No. 3 party in France, got 13.6 percent.  But in a clear blow to Le Pen, the main French right party headed until May by Nicolas Sarkozy has not been willing to align itself with her, dashing her hopes for a historic realignment.

However, Le Pen trounced far-left figure Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Henin-Beaumont, a distressed former mining region, in what Mr. Melenchon had hoped would be a comeuppance for her. Melenchon had made waves this spring as a dynamic new voice on the far nationalist left. But after carpetbagging up in the French north, his nose was bloodied by Le Pen, who scored 42 percent to his 21 percent.

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Le Pen’s party may score three seats. In Paris today, speculation has it that one of those seats would be from the Le Pen clan: Marion Marechal-Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen’s niece and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder.

In an unexpected development, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party nominee in 2007 and the former partner of Hollande, could well lose her seat after deciding to run in a region that has other popular long-time Socialists. Le Parisian today commented on a campaign of “Saving Private Royal,” after party officials have tried to ban other candidates from that seat.