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ELECTIONS

Socialists on top in parliamentary vote

French President Francois Hollande's Socialists and allies came out on top in Sunday's first round parliamentary elections, poised to secure the majority needed to push through tax-and-spend reforms.

Socialists on top in parliamentary vote

The election also saw a surge in support for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, which wants to ditch the euro and battle against what she calls the “Islamisation” of France.

The Socialists and their Green allies won around 46 percent of the vote, ahead of the 34 percent of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party and its allies, the final results released by the interior ministry showed.

Pollsters TNS Sofres, Ipos and OpinonWay agreed that the Hollande camp might win as few as 283 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly or potentially as many as 347. But potential allies in the anti-capitalist Left Front would take 13-20 seats and ensure a majority.

Hollande defeated Sarkozy in last month’s presidential election and wants voters to give him a strong mandate to enact reforms as France battles Europe’s crippling debt crisis, rising joblessness and a stagnant economy.

If next week’s second round confirms Sunday’s results, it will boost his status in Europe as champion of the movement away from German-led fixation on austerity towards growth, which he favours as the solution to the economic crisis.

Hollande’s Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for a “large, solid and coherent majority” for the Socialist party and its allies in the second round.

“Change is going to be around for a while,” he said, echoing the Socialists’ presidential election slogan.

The National Front won 13.6 percent of the votes, far above the 4.0 percent it achieved in the last parliamentary election in 2007.

But under France’s first-past-the-post system, that would at best give it only three parliamentary seats and possibly none at all.

The Communist-backed Left Front, headed by firebrand anti-capitalist Jean-Luc Melenchon, won 6.9 percent of the votes.  

Nationwide turnout was a modest 57 percent.

But the night marked a personal defeat for Melenchon who took Le Pen head-on in a bitter battle in a rundown former mining constituency near the northern city of Lille.

“It’s normal to be disappointed but we must not be defeated,” Melenchon said as he bowed out, while Le Pen claimed her victory meant her party was now France’s third political power.

“Given the abstention rate and a 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.

Her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, also the granddaughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, beat left and right candidates in the southern Vaucluse district with 35 percent of the votes.

Although the party has not won a seat in parliament since 1986, Le Pen is seeking to build on her strong showing in the presidential vote and cement her party’s place in national politics.

Melenchon won 11 percent of votes in the April-May presidential vote that was won by Hollande, while Le Pen won almost 18 percent of votes.

Centrist leader Francois Bayrou meanwhile appeared set to lose his seat in the southwest after his left and right-wing rivals beat him in the first round.

The mainstream left’s strong score in the parliamentary vote means Hollande will likely not have to rely on support from the Left Front to make good on his electoral promises.

He has pledged to hire an extra 60,000 new teachers and to hit top earners with a 50-percent tax rate on some of their income.

The Socialists took control of the upper house of parliament, the Senate, last year.

Ayrault’s interim government has taken a series of popular steps in the wake of Hollande’s presidential victory in the May 6 run-off.

He has cut ministers’ salaries by 30 percent, vowed to reduce executive pay at state-owned companies and lowered the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.

But the UMP has hit back with warnings that the Socialists are preparing huge tax hikes to pay for what the right says is a fiscally irresponsible spending programme for Europe’s second-biggest economy.

UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope said the Socialists were readying “the biggest-ever tightening of the screws on the middle class”.

The economic backdrop is bleak for whoever wins the parliamentary vote: unemployment is at 10 percent, growth has stalled and the eurozone crisis has lurched back into the foreground.

More than 6,500 candidates were competing in Sunday’s vote, which takes place over two rounds under a constituency-based simple majority system.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round, any contender who scores more than 12.5 percent of the vote stays in the race for the second round.

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ELECTIONS

Macron braces for local election blow as French voters stay away from polls

French voters abstained in their millions Sunday from a final round of municipal elections predicted to deal a blow to the party of President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron braces for local election blow as French voters stay away from polls

Amid persistent fears of coronavirus contagion, just over a third of voters had turned out by 5:00 pm, three hours before polling stations close, the interior ministry said.

The turnout rate of 34.67 percent was lower even than nine hours into the first round of voting on March 15 that was marked by a record 55-percent abstention rate.

Three polling agencies predicted participation would reach no more than 41 percent by the day's close, compared to 62.2 percent in 2014.

Polls opened for some 16.5 million eligible voters at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in nearly 5,000 cities and towns where the first election round failed to yield a decisive outcome.

This represents about 15 percent of the country's municipal councils where power remains up for grabs, including the key cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg. 

The opening election round was held just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining deadly momentum, but the second phase, originally scheduled for March 22, was postponed after France went into lockdown.

A new date was set after the government's scientific council said it was possible to hold another round safely, but voters were required to wear face masks and urged to bring their own pens to lower the contamination risk. 

Many voters and election officials sported germ-blocking plastic visors, and plexiglass screens were erected between them at several polling stations, which also provided sanitising hand gel.

“If one can go shopping, why not go vote?” said an undeterred Martine Legros, 67, who cast her ballot in Dijon in eastern France.

High toll

Analysts expect the election to confirm that Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party — founded by the president ahead of his 2017 election win — has failed to gain a strong foothold at local level.

The party made lacklustre showings in March — notably in Paris where Macron's candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, came third.

“The problem is that the LREM is a new party that has no local roots and is struggling to impose itself as a (political) force,” analyst Jean Garrigues of the University of Orleans told AFP.

With a death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country went into lockdown on March 17, just two days after the first  round of municipal voting.

Most restrictions have now been eased.

Cabinet reshuffle? 

During the outbreak, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe — an unshowy technocrat — saw his popularity rise to a level higher than that of Macron, whose policies have been the target of months of protests and strikes.

Macron's critics say he is a president of the rich and out of touch with ordinary people.

Paris is buzzing with speculation that a poor showing by the LREM on Sunday could see Macron reshuffle his cabinet, possibly axing Philippe who campaigned to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.

Holding two executive posts is allowed under French law.

Firing Philippe would allow Macron “to claim he is delivering on his promise to ensure the 'second act' of his presidency takes note of failings revealed by his handling of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.

With just 22 months to the next presidential election, Macron's main challenger is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally.

Despite an abysmal performance in the last national elections, France's Socialists are expected Sunday to keep key regional centres, including Paris.

There will also be close attention on the Europe Ecology – The Greens party, which has its eye on the Alpine hub of Grenoble as well as Strasbourg and Lyon.

In Marseille, leftist Michele Rubirola hopes to take France's second city from the right after a quarter of a century of control.

For Le Pen's National Rally, the big prize would be Perpignan in the south, which could become the stage for the first far-right takeover of a French city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since 1995. 

The only region of France not voting Sunday is the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic is deemed too active to open polling stations.

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