French election cements control by Sarkozy

Posted in Europe | 18-Jun-07 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

Supporters of the Union for a Popular Movement party celebrating in Paris on Sunday.

PARIS: The conservative party of President Nicolas Sarkozy won a solid victory in parliamentary elections Sunday but failed to secure the rout of the left that polls had predicted.

In a sign that the left is alive and well in France, three polling institutes estimated that Sarkozy's governing Union for a Popular Movement and allies would win 318 to 323 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. The polling groups projected that the Socialists would win 206 to 212 seats.

That outcome reflected a net gain of seats for the left and a net loss for the right. Sarkozy's party had 359 seats in the outgoing National Assembly, while the Socialists had 149.

In the most high-stakes contest, Alain Juppé - Sarkozy's head of a new high-profile mega-ministry for the environment, transportation and energy, and also the mayor of Bordeaux - lost to a Socialist. He announced that he would step down as minister, effectively the No. 2 position in the government, a humiliating setback for the Sarkozy government.

In a less important but symbolic defeat for the governing conservatives, Jean-Louis Bruguière, who as France's leading anti-terrorism investigative magistrate earned a global reputation over the years, also lost to a Socialist.

Still, the overall win by the "blue wave," as the political power of the right has been called, was the first time in 29 years that a governing party had retained its majority in the lower house of Parliament.

Both the left and the right claimed victory.

"Through their vote, the French wanted to give meaning to the Republic, a democratic freedom with a real force of constructive opposition," said Ségolène Royal, the Socialist who lost to Sarkozy for the presidency.

But Prime Minister François Fillon congratulated voters for their "clear and coherent choice, which will allow the president of the republic to implement his project."

Certainly, the outcome gives Sarkozy the mandate to push through his ambitious program to cut taxes, reinvigorate the economy, strip some labor protections, slash unemployment, impose curbs on immigration and make France more competitive globally. But psychologically, the Sarkozy government may lose some of its momentum - what its political foes call its arrogance.

Before the vote, the Socialists and other parties of the left had warned that a consolidation of power behind Sarkozy would be potentially dangerous for democracy in France.

The Socialist Party leader, François Hollande, credited the stronger-than-expected showing of the left to what he called the "first unfair measures of the government." He cited a much-criticized proposal to increase the value-added tax to reduce the burden of social security payments on companies.

In separate comments, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who belongs to Sarkozy's party, admitted that popular fear of the extra tax, as well as of the "blue tsunami," had cost votes.

In his one month since assuming office, Sarkozy has shown signs of wanting to expand the power of the presidency, usurping some of the functions that traditionally have been carried out by the prime minister.

He has ordered a special summer session of the new Parliament (when much of the country is on vacation and not inclined to protest in the streets) to consider his first set of bills on taxes, labor rules, universities, immigration and crime.

In foreign affairs, Sarkozy is full of proposals - for the crisis in Darfur, the moribund European constitution, the fate of Kosovo, climate change, a new Mediterranean union. At the recent Group of 8 summit meeting in Germany, he appeared confident, even cocky, in meetings with other heads of state, lecturing Britain's outgoing prime minister, Tony Blair, about why he was not more popular, and musing with President George W. Bush about the 2008 presidential race in the United States.

The new National Assembly will remain overwhelmingly white, male and gray-haired. The average age is expected to remain at well over 50.

The new Democrat Movement party of François Bayrou, the centrist who came in third place with nearly 19 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, was estimated to have won only 4 seats, down from 29 seats, and insufficient to form his own parliamentary group.

The Communist Party, which in the 1970s had as many as 86 seats and currently has 21, was estimated to have won 12 to 19 seats. The Greens were estimated at 4 seats. Under the peculiarities of French electoral law, the far-right National Front won no seats.

The right was projected to win dramatically bigger. In a first round a week ago, Sarkozy's party and two other parties of the right won 109 seats outright under a system that requires a winner to take more than 50 percent of the vote; the Socialists took only one seat. The remaining seats were decided in the runoff Sunday.

The low turnout, estimated at about 60 percent, reflected both voter certainty that Sarkozy's party would inevitably prevail and voter fatigue after presidential and parliamentary elections that made the election Sunday the fourth national poll in two months. By contrast, voter turnout in the presidential election in May was more than 84 percent.

This is a strange moment in French politics. Jacques Chirac's departure from office and return to private life after 12 years as president coincides with his sudden fall from grace. His immunity from prosecution expired Saturday, one month after moving out of the presidential Élysée Palace.

There are five separate investigations involving the 74-year-old career politician, although his most serious vulnerability is an investigation of an illegal party-funding scheme that dates to more than a decade ago when he was mayor of Paris.

It resulted in a series of prosecutions of senior members of his former party, including Juppé, his former prime minister, who received a suspended jail term, was barred from holding public office for a year and suffered another humiliating defeat on Sunday.

In a bizarre political rule, government ministers and certain other senior officials are allowed to run for Parliament - a symbolic move to maximize their legitimacy - but have to relinquish the post to a designated "stand-in" if they win.

The outcome of the Sunday election was expected to give a boost to the Socialist Party, which since the presidential election has been riven by internal divisions over strategy and public squabbling between Royal and Hollande, her partner and the father of their four children.

The parliamentary campaign was marked by dramatic moments of Socialist Party desperation. Royal, who did not run for re-election to Parliament, confessed that she would have been ready to take over the party reins from Hollande.

"If he would have quit, I would have been the candidate," she said bluntly during a trip to northern France in early June. "That's his choice."

After the party's dismal showing in the first round, Royal reached out for support to Bayrou, who spurned her proposal for an alliance against the right.

Hollande was apparently infuriated by her overture, telling Le Monde, "She has a personal contact with François Bayrou. I don't."

Le Monde called their bickering a "vaudeville act."

A deep and divisive debate over whether the party, which essentially has upheld the same leftist positions since its creation in 1971, should remain on the left or move to the center has also contributed to the sense of disarray.

Socialist leaders and candidates struggled until the end of the parliamentary campaign to warn voters of the dangers of so much power being consolidated behind one man, and urged their supporters to get over their fatalism and disappointment and turn out at the polls.

Sarkozy and his lieutenants, meanwhile, told voters it was their duty to give the governing party an overwhelming mandate to push through a platform of change.