Francois Hollande's Socialist Party and their allies on the left are in prime position to gain a majority of seats in France’s National Assembly, following a triumphant performance in the first round of parliamentary elections on Sunday.
As a result, President Hollande’s plan to scale back the austerity measures of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and focus on economic growth may gain full steam.
The Socialists and other leftist parties gained about 46 percent of the total vote, well ahead of the 34 percent tally scored by the centrist-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party of Sarkozy and its allies.
French political pollsters TNS Sofres, Ipsos and OpinionWay suggest that a leftist coalition led by the Socialists could gain at least 283 seats and as many as 329 in the 577-seat National Assembly -- a distinct majority -- after next week’s run-off.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hailed the first-round result, calling it a large, solid and coherent majority for the Socialist Party and its allies.
Change is going to be around for a while, he said.
Hollande, who won the presidential election last month, needs a substantial majority in order to push through a series of economic measures designed to scale back the austerity program of his predecessor, Sarkozy, and to foster growth amid a very grim economic backdrop in France (featuring nearly 10 percent joblessness) and in Europe as a whole.
If the Socialists can maintain the momentum in next week’s run-off, Hollande will likely have a mandate to pursue his plan to focus on economic growth in an austerity-draped Europe.
Christian Fraser, BBC correspondent in Paris, wrote: “When you look at the left bloc as a whole, they have more support than the right, they will have a majority in the new parliament and that will ensure that … Hollande can force through the ambitious tax and spend policies that he has set out.”
Indeed, the Socialists already have control of the Senate, the upper house of parliament.
Among other measures, Hollande seeks to hire 60,000 new schoolteachers and slap a huge tax on those earning €1 million a year or more. He is also at direct odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the euro zone’s near-term future and with spending cuts.
Under the interim government of Ayrault, the Socialists have already reduced the retirement age for some employees to 60 from 62 (undoing another of Sarkozy’s policies) and reduced cabinet minister’s pay by 30 percent.
Douglas Yates, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Paris and professor at the American Graduate School in Paris, said that with a solid majority in the National Assembly, the Socialist Party may be able to govern alone -- that is, without the Greens or the former Communists -- and therefore pursue its legislative program unrestrained by the tug-of-war of multi-party coalition politics.
However, there are real fiscal and economic constraints on pursuing all of Hollande's campaign promises, Yates cautioned.
“Raising taxes on the wealthy he can do, reducing the retirement age for certain categories [of workers] he has already started, but when it comes to increasing public expenditures he will find himself limited by EU commitments, the credit ratings agencies, and the forces of the marketplace -- from which his government must borrow to pay for his promises,” he said.
The far right also did fairly well in the election.
On the heels of an unprecedented 18 percent vote tally in the first round of the presidential elections in May, the extreme right-wing National Front [FN] party of Marine Le Pen gained about 13.6 percent of Sunday’s parliamentary poll, more than triple the support it received during the 1997 assembly election.
In contrast, the ideological polar opposite of the National Front, the Communist-backed Left Front of Jean-Luc Melenchon, won only 6.9 percent of the votes in Sunday’s poll.
Le Pen declared that the election meant her party is now France’s third largest, suggesting it has finally joined the mainstream.
Given the … profoundly anti-democratic electoral system that has for 25 years deprived millions of voters of MPs, we confirm our position tonight as France's third political force, Le Pen said.
However, the National Front, which is vociferously opposed to immigration and also wants France to exit the euro zone, may only gain a maximum of two or three seats in the Assembly, due to France’s first-past-the-post electoral system.
In addition, turnout in Sunday’s poll was only 57 percent, an all-time low for a first round parliamentary election in France.
Yates commented that the modest turnout reflects a general fatigue with politics after a year-long presidential campaign (that actually started with the Socialist primaries), as well as a “presidentialization” of politics, which has reduced the legislative elections to a secondary status in the mind of French electors.
“Clearly the trend is toward disengagement with the parliamentary system,” he said. “Apathetic? Perhaps. But the kind of people who were marching in the streets for Jean-Luc Melenchon are just not the same kind of people to participate in legislative elections. Voting is a kind of political behavior that does not allow for the expression of strong opinions. Active opposition to the government usually takes place in the extra-parliamentary arena.”
James Shields, professor of French Politics and Modern History at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, attributed the low turnout various factors, including the fact that these parliamentary elections were held after only a very brief campaign and had the feel of a foregone conclusion, an endorsement of the new President's election commonly known as the 'coattails effect'.
More importantly, Shields noted, the record abstention also reflects a widespread disaffection and growing cynicism towards politics, a loss of faith in the ability of politicians to solve France's economic and social problems.
Yates also declared that the National Front was the biggest loser from the low turnout.
“This is because FN voters tend to come from lower- [and] working-class French, among whom abstention rates are the highest,” he explained.
“At most the FN is expected to win two seats, and because of the anti-FN strategy of the two dominant parties, the likely outcome is zero.”
Thus, any representation the FN gains in the assembly will be largely symbolic.
But it would see the return to the National Assembly of a far-right party deprived of a parliamentary presence, with the briefest isolated exceptions, since the 1980s, Shields noted.
Moreover, the UMP, much reviled by Le Pen, would become the principal opposition party under a Hollande administration, dashing the FN's hopes of supplanting the party formerly led by Sarkozy.
However, Le Pen clearly wants to make noise in the run-offs next week.
[FN's] intention in the run-offs... will be to inflict as much damage as possible upon the UMP, depriving its candidates of election where it can in the hope of forcing deals or accommodations that would begin to herald a rapprochement between mainstream right and far right, Shields stated.
Unlike her father, Marine Le Pen will not be content to see the FN continue to campaign as a perennial outsider. She wants to bring the party in from its isolation, ‘de-demonize’ it and open it up to the sort of alliances with other right-wing parties that are absolutely critical in the face of France’s two-ballot majority voting system. Marine Le Pen’s hope is that the second round of voting this Sunday will be another small step along that path to acceptability for the ostracized party she now leads.
Meanwhile, Hollande’s government is scheduled to present a new budget plan to parliament in July.