Left favourites as France votes for new parliament

PARIS – France voted on Sunday in the first round of an election tipped to give the left control of parliament and consolidate President Francois Hollande’s grip on power as he seeks to ease the pain of a debt crisis in Europe.

At stake in the vote for the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, is Hollande’s ability to rule with a free hand as he seeks to reboot Europe’s second-largest economy and push other euro zone leaders to combat stagnation.

On a rainy day across most of France, voting stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT, 2pm Singapore time). Voting ends at 8 p.m., when early returns should give an indication of the size of what polls predict will be a victory for the Socialists and their allies.

After two rounds of voting to pick a president, there were signs of fatigue as another two-stage ballot got underway.

“This whole process is too long,” 76-year-old Jean-Louis Bertrandy said outside a voting station in central Paris.

Among early voters in the southern port city of Marseille was Marie-Arlette Carlotti, a candidate who must win a seat to keep her post as minister for the handicapped under rules laid down when Hollande named an interim government in mid-May.

A second and final round of voting takes place on June 17, determining the makeup of an assembly that Hollande, at the start of a five-year term, hopes will cooperate in the implementation of his tax-and-spend programme.

He has promised to reverse a surge in unemployment and erase a government overdraft without exposing voters to welfare cuts and Greek-style austerity.

Seeking to set the example ahead of the parliamentary vote, Hollande and his ministers agreed in May to cut their salaries by 30 percent.

“He’s done exactly what he should be doing. He’s kept his promises,” said pensioner Michael Naiditch, who planned to vote for a left-winger hardliner in his Parisian constituency on Sunday before probably backing a Socialist when it came to the final round in a week’s time.

France’s Senate, the upper house of parliament, is already under left-wing control.

Hollande, who unseated conservative Nicolas Sarkozy on May 6 and was sworn in mid-May, also needs all the help he can get as he lobbies European leaders, chief among them German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to do more for economic growth.

The 57-year-old Socialist wants a fiscal responsibility pact signed by his predecessor and other European leaders reworked, saying it needs more pro-growth measures. But Merkel has ruled out resorting to the issuance of common euro zone bonds without moves towards closer fiscal union.

NUMBERS GAME

Barring an upset, the main question hanging over Hollande is whether the Socialists will win control of the National Assembly on their own, or will have to depend on the Greens and more radical left-wingers to secure the 289 seats needed for a majority.

Polls published in the days before the opening round showed the Socialist Party more or less neck-to-neck with Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party, with about a third each of the total vote.

But the polls put the Socialists on course to take as much as 46 percent of the total vote with the help of the Greens, their first preference as coalition partners, and the Left Front, a grouping that includes Communists and other hardliners.

According to an Ipsos poll, vote percentages for the Socialists, the Green and the Left Front could translate into a combined 292 to 346 seats.

More than 6,000 candidates are taking part in a race where anyone with a score of 12.5 percent of registered voters goes on to the second and final round, and where few win the 50 percent upwards required to secure a seat outright in round one.

Ipsos saw the far-right National Front, whose leader Marine Le Pen took an unexpectedly large 17.9 percent of a first-round presidential vote in late April, winning anywhere between zero and three seats.

Political analysts said there was also a risk that voters would stay away in large numbers. Abstention rates have risen since France synchronised the presidential and parliamentary terms and hit 40 percent in 2007.

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