Socialists set for majority despite tweet row

French President François Hollande's Socialists look set to win a parliamentary majority Sunday after an election campaign most marked by an incendiary tweet fired off by the first lady.

Socialists set for majority despite tweet row

The Twitter message by Hollande’s companion Valérie Trierweiler wishing good luck to an opponent of Ségolène Royal – the president’s ex-partner and mother of their four children –livened up an otherwise lacklustre campaign.

But despite the scandal, pollsters say Hollande’s Socialists and their parliamentary allies are on track to take control of France’s lower house National Assembly.

Hollande, who defeated rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy in May’s presidential election, has urged voters to give him a majority as he seeks to steer France through Europe’s debt crisis, rising unemployment and a faltering economy.

A study by polling firm IFOP released Thursday showed the Socialists and their parliamentary allies set to win 297 to 332 seats, more than enough to secure a majority in the 577-seat National Assembly.

The Socialists and other left-wing parties came out on top in last Sunday’s first round, winning 46 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Sarkozy’s UMP party and its allies.

But after a record low turnout of only 57 percent in the first round, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged supporters at a rally this week to keep working for a “large, coherent and unified majority”.

“The game is not over. Previous parliamentary elections showed that a number of seats can play on a few dozen votes. We must mobilise, mobilise, mobilise to convince voters right up to the last hour,” he said.

The vote will also be a key test for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and anti-EU National Front (FN), which took 13.6 percent in the first round – far above the four percent it won in the last parliamentary election in 2007.

Le Pen, who said the result confirmed her party’s position as France’s “third political force,” is hoping the FN will be able to take a handful of seats including one for her in a rundown former mining constituency near the northern city of Lille.

The UMP has reached out to the National Front’s voters, urging them to switch from the far-right to keep the Socialists from victory.

“I am telling the FN’s voters: be careful when you vote for the FN in the second round, you risk putting the left in power,” UMP leader Jean-François Cope said this week.

The UMP rejected the idea of forming second-round alliances with the FN but, despite calls from the Socialists, refused to pull its candidates from three-way races to ensure far-right candidates did not get elected.

The only potential hiccup in the Socialists’ campaign was Trierweiler’s tweet, which the right jumped on as an embarrassment to Hollande. 

The tweet wished luck to Socialist dissident Olivier Falorni, who is running against Royal for a seat in the western town of La Rochelle and was ahead in one poll this week with 58 percent of the vote.

There has long been speculation of intense rivalry between Royal and Trierweiler.

Hollande stood loyally by Royal as she battled Sarkozy for the presidency in the 2007 race, but he had reportedly been in a relationship since 2005 with Trierweiler, a twice-divorced 47-year-old mother of three.

The UMP said the tweet was an inappropriate intrusion of Hollande’s personal life into politics, but analysts said that despite widespread media coverage it was unlikely the scandal would have much impact on the Socialists’ chances.

The IFOP study said 13 to 20 seats are also expected to go on Sunday to the Greens, who are close allies of the Socialists and already in government, so Hollande is all but certain of majority backing.

The FN are set to win up to three seats, including potentially for Le Pen and for Marion Marechal-Le Pen, the FN leader’s 22-year-old niece, in the southern Vaucluse area.

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French Prime Minister Macron doubles down on pension age as strikes loom

France's prime minister on Sunday ruled out backtracking on a plan to raise the retirement age as unions prepared for another day of mass protests against the contested reform.

French Prime Minister Macron doubles down on pension age as strikes loom

An increase in the minimum retirement age to 64 from the current 62 is part of a flagship reform package pushed by President Emmanuel Macron to ensure the future financing of France’s pensions system.

After union protests against the change brought out over a million people into the streets on January 19, the government signalled there was wiggle room on some measures, including the number of contributing years needed to qualify for a full pension, special deals for people who started working very young, and provisions for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children.

But the headline age limit of 64 was not up for discussion, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Sunday.

“This is now non-negotiable,” she told the FranceInfo broadcaster.

While unions have welcomed the government’s readiness for negotiation on parts of the plan, they say the proposed 64-year rule has to go.

Calling the reform “unfair” France’s eight major unions, in a rare show of unity, said they hoped to “mobilise even more massively” on Tuesday, their next scheduled protest day, than at the showing earlier this month.

“Even more people”

“It’s looking like there will be even more people”, said Celine Verzeletti, member of the hardleft union CGT’s confederation leadership.

Pointing to opinion polls, Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, said that “the people disagree strongly with the project, and that view is gaining ground”.

It would be “a mistake” for the government to ignore the mobilisation, he warned.

Unions and the government both see Tuesday’s protests as a major test.

Some 200 protests are being organised countrywide, with a big march planned for Paris, culminating in a demonstration outside the National Assembly where parliamentary commissions are to start examining the draft law on Monday.

The leftwing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s allies are short of an absolute majority in parliament and will need votes from conservatives to approve the pensions plan.

The government has the option of forcing the bill through without a vote under special constitutional powers, but at the risk of triggering a vote of no confidence, and possibly new parliamentary elections.

In addition to protest marches, unions have called for widespread strike action for Tuesday, with railway services and public transport expected to be heavily affected.

Stoppages are also expected in schools and administrations, with some local authorities having already announced closures of public spaces such as sports stadiums.

Some unions have called for further strike action in February, including at commercial ports, refineries and power stations.

Some observers said the unions are playing for high stakes, and any slackening of support Tuesday could be fatal for their momentum.

“They have placed the bar high,” said Dominique Andolfatto, a professor for political science. “They can’t afford any missteps.”