Hollande’s Socialists Win Parliamentary Majority in French Elections

The French parliamentary elections hand Socialists and their leftist allies the large majority that President François Hollande needs to pass progrowth policies — and challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel's austerity remedies for crisis-rocked euro-zone countries

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Frank Perry / AFP / Getty Images

French voters take part in the second round of the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Nantes, France, on June 17, 2012

French President François Hollande’s Socialist Party won control of the legislature in Sunday’s elections. With final results still coming in, the Socialist Party (PS) and its closest leftist allies are expected to win 313 to 315 seats in the 577-member Assemblée Nationale, which would give Hollande the legislative muscle to implement the economic-stimulus programs he’s promised France — and urged more broadly for the entire crisis-battered euro zone. Control of the legislature would not only allow Socialist lawmakers to pass Hollande’s Keynesian economic policies in the face of ferocious opposition of austerity-minded conservatives, it would also permit the Socialist majority to resist demands from nominally allied hard-left parties for even greater state spending than Hollande is expected to propose.

Pollsters estimate the conservatives of the outgoing majority winning around 214 seats and the extreme right National Front (FN) capturing two — the party’s first return to Parliament since the mid-1980s. FN leader Marine Le Pen was narrowly defeated in her runoff battle with a Socialist rival, but her 22-year-old niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen was projected to win a seat in southern France — a victory that would make her the youngest member of Parliament in history (a distinction previously earned by the 1791 election of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just).

Results of first-round polling on June 10 had made the victory of allied leftist parties in Sunday’s runoff stage a foregone conclusion. But those initial scores had also unexpectedly boosted Socialist hopes of winning a majority of their own. To bring that about, the PS not only had to fend off warnings from outgoing conservatives that breaking with the right’s focus on austerity will send France’s public debt soaring out of control. Socialists also had to manage an embarrassing flap within their own ranks, sparked by Hollande’s current partner (and France’s First Lady) Valérie Trierweiler undermining the parliamentary bid of his former companion, Ségolène Royal, by backing her dissident leftist rival. In announcing her defeat by that leftist, Royal called it “the result of treason.” Royal then explained she was referring to local conservatives supporting her leftist foe with the sole objective of assuring her defeat, although the unstated nod to the First Lady’s foray into the race was nonetheless evident.

Despite attacks from conservatives and its own internal intrigue, the results of Sunday’s voting suggested the PS had succeeded in keeping its leaders and the public concentrated on its main goal: giving Hollande the legislative backing he’ll need to pass his stimulus policies. “This is a new parliamentary majority that logically corresponds to the presidential majority,” Socialist Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius said on France 2 TV channel after partial results were announced. “That large majority will now be able to pass laws and provide the change voters have shown they want, and influence policy direction in Europe.”

In domestic political terms, Sunday’s parliamentary triumph leaves the PS and its leftist allies in a position of unprecedented power. Prior to Hollande’s Élysée win over conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, Socialists had led the left’s victorious 2011 efforts to gain control of France’s upper house of Parliament for the first time under the Fifth Republic. The PS and those leftist partners also govern a majority of major French cities, and rule all but one of France’s mainland regional councils. Indeed, ahead of Sunday’s legislative runoff round, Sarkozy’s conservatives had darkly warned against giving a single party control of the nation’s main political bodies. But that’s what voters decided to do. “This is a clear victory for the Socialist Party and a clear defeat for [conservatives],” said Sarkozy’s former Foreign Affairs Minister, Alain Juppé, on France 2.

Their impressive domination notwithstanding, rising to that challenge will be no easy feat for Hollande and his fellow Socialists. With France’s current public debt level exceeding 85% of GDP, even Hollande concedes increased spending on social programs and growth stimulus will be limited, targeted and offset by tax hikes. It’s still unknown whether even that new investment will suffice to significantly lift France’s economy. Meanwhile, any beneficial effects that may have domestically will ultimately be insignificant in addressing the wider crisis France and Europe face unless similar spending is undertaken by other euro-zone governments suffering stagnation or recession.

That’s a volume and scope of state expenditure that German Chancellor Angela Merkel flatly rejects as the kind of habitual excess that must be broken and cured by the current austerity measures she has favored. To contrast that, Hollande has been joined by Italian Premier Mario Monti, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and other euro-zone leaders who argue those public-spending strictures have deepened the economic slump and pushed the debt crisis, imperiling the euro to the state of urgency. There seems little hope of either view prevailing — or a workable compromise arising — at the summit of European leaders, scheduled on June 28.

Even if the triumph of the Socialists in the French parliamentary polling doesn’t have any influence on Merkel’s negotiating position, Sunday’s victory will ensure that Hollande’s pushback against the German leader at least won’t fall at the first hurdle, which would have happened if French voters had failed to return a Parliament willing to implement the Socialists’ agenda.