Just a month after French voters elected Socialist François Hollande president, they returned to the polls to give his political allies a significant boost in their bid to take control of parliament. Results of the first round of legislative elections on Sunday showed that a trio of leftist parties led by Hollande’s Socialists finished on top with 46.3% of the vote, outpacing the outgoing conservative majority, which only garnered 33.9%. Analysts say this initial tally makes it likely the left will come away from second-round polling on June 17 with a commanding hold on parliament—leaving Hollande with a freer hand to pass pro-growth and socially progressive policies that conservatives had promised to impede if they retained their legislative control.
Though voter turnout was a disappointing 57% (compared to nearly 80% in the presidential battle that saw Hollande unseat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy), the elections appeared to reward Hollande’s early strategy of pushing through what he promised would be policies of economic “fairness” amid Europe’s financial crisis. Those included cutting the salaries of cabinet members (as well as his own) by around 30% and raising stipends that the parents of students will get at the start of the next school year by 25%. Just before the June elections, Hollande also moved to repeal Sarkozy’s hallmark reform initiative by rolling back the retirement age for some workers from 62 to 60. These domestic policy moves—combined with his lobbying for growth stimulus among European Union leaders—appeared to endear the left to French voters who are worried about debt crisis, but think the austerity measures pushed through to battle it have proved counter-productive to economic growth and job production.
Yet despite this optimistic outlook for the left—and the prospects that the Socialist Party (PS) may even win an absolute majority in parliament on its own—officials will take pains to mobilize voters ahead of next Sunday’s run-off. “Nothing is over,” noted PS leader Martine Aubry. The conservatives, meanwhile, signaled that they won’t go down without a fight. “There is no pink wave tonight,” echoed outgoing conservative premier François Fillon, referring to the Socialists’ rose symbol. “There is no surge of enthusiasm for the president’s party.”
Be that as it may, Fillon and his Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) managed to generate even less excitement among voters. Indeed, several leading members of Fillon’s former cabinet now find themselves facing tough second-round fights against leftist foes and, making things more complicated, against some candidates from Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) party, which won 14% of the vote nationally. Le Pen herself topped polling in a precinct in northern France, but is considered the underdog in her run-off against the incumbent Socialist there.
Though the UMP’s leadership has continued to reject any electoral deals with the extreme-right National Front in order to deny the left victories in close races, some panicky conservatives began repeating Sarkozy’s earlier controversial pandering to FN voters as results were announced Sunday. Former minister and Sarkozy loyalist Nadine Morano, for example, unabashedly beckoned to extreme-right supporters to help her beat a Socialist opponent who won the first round in her precinct in eastern France. “I want to call on National Front voters who share our values—my values—to rally to my candidacy during the second round,” Morano said. “I have no hesitations in appealing to FN voters.”
Many fellow conservatives frowned on Morano’s words, yet tried to keep a brave face in what appears to be an uphill battle. Voting shifts in second-round match-ups—and the impacts of varying turnout levels—makes it difficult to know exactly how France’s next parliament will shape up. However, based on Sunday’s initial tallies it appears probable that a coalition of Socialist, environmentalist and hard-left parties will secure 310 to 361 of the total 577 legislative seats. Conservatives are projected to claim 224 to 261 seats, and the FN between zero and three. (The party is hoping to gain a seat in parliament for the first time since the mid-1980s.)
Having a leftist majority in parliament is essential to Hollande’s attempts to find a compromise between unavoidable deficit and debt cutting to overcome the euro crisis and increased spending on targeted social programs to promote growth and limit the pain many in France are feeling. That feat will involve raising taxes and putting a particularly hard pinch on the wealthy and the big companies that Hollande says are not contributing their fair share to the common cause.
Conservatives rail against such plans, calling them disastrous. They predict such moves will cause businesses to slash jobs to compensate for lost revenues, send France’s richest people abroad and unleash spending certain to send the country’s already untenable debt levels even higher. Yet at the same time, politicians from green and hard-left parties nominally allied to Hollande complain that his policies are far too centrist. That’s one reason why Socialists leaders continue to urge voters to stay focused until balloting is over on June 17—partially to prevent a conservative bounce-back arising from abstention, but also in the hopes of the PS gaining control of parliament on its own without relying on possibly fractious partners.
“Tonight’s result is good,” Socialist Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, “but we must remain mobilized for the second round.”