Monday, June 11, 2012
Left eyes control of parliament as France votes
By Brian Love and Daniel Flynn
PARIS (Reuters) - 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 steer the country through Europe's debt crisis.
At stake in the vote for the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, is the new Socialist leader's ability to rule unfettered as he prepares budget adjustments in Europe's second-biggest economy, including possible spending cuts.
Hollande is also under pressure from Berlin to agree measures over time to hand European Union institutions more control over national budgets and move towards a fiscal union - measures that would be opposed by hard-left parties.
Hollande has urged supporters to come out in force, worried that too strong a showing by the far left could tie his hands and aware that conservatives will vote against his plans to raise taxes on the wealthy in the weeks ahead.
"There are already so many taxes in France. It's hard enough to run your own business as it is and with the Socialists there will just be more taxes," Cambodian-born Sor Chin-Run said as he voted for a conservative candidate in the eastern Doubs region.
Opinion polls point to Hollande's Socialist Party winning a narrow but workable majority that could depend to some degree on Green allies, likely to back most government legislation, and hard leftists, who may oppose further European integration.
On a drizzly day across most of France and following two rounds of voting in April and May to pick a president, there were signs of fatigue as another two-stage ballot got under way.
Turnout was 48.31 percent at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT), down from 49.28 percent in the 2007 parliamentary vote. Abstention rates have soared since France synchronised the presidential and parliamentary terms a decade ago, hitting 40 percent in 2007.
"This whole process is too long," 76-year-old Jean-Louis Bertrandy said outside a voting station in central Paris.
Voting ends at 8 p.m., 12 hours after polls opened, and early returns released then by polling agencies should give an indication of how many seats the left is on track to win.
A second voting round on June 17 will fix the makeup of an assembly Hollande will depend on to implement his tax-and-spend programme. He has vowed to create jobs and erase a government overdraft without imposing Greek-style austerity.
Seeking to set an example when they took office in May, Hollande and his ministers cut their own pay 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-wing hardliner in his Parisian constituency and back a Socialist in the second round.
The Senate, parliament's upper house, has been under left-wing control since late 2011. Hollande, France's first Socialist leader in 17 years, needs at least 289 seats to enjoy a parallel majority in the lower house.
Polls show the Socialist Party neck-and-neck with the centre-right UMP, with a third each of the vote, but give the left around 46 percent with the addition of Greens and the Left Front, a grouping that includes radicals and Communists.
Pollster Ipsos says vote percentages for the Socialists, Greens and the Left Front could translate into a combined 292 to 346 seats. OpinionWay said the Socialists could still win more than 289 seats alone.
Hollande, who unseated conservative Nicolas Sarkozy on May 6, needs all the help he can get as he lobbies Berlin for a pro-growth pact to accompany a budget responsibility treaty.
In the past few days, Merkel has made signing up for an eventual fiscal union in Europe her condition for agreeing to Hollande's pro-growth ideas and calls by Paris, Madrid and others for a bank-sector union and the issuance of common bonds.
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 round. Few score above the 50 percent mark required to secure a seat outright in round one.
Ipsos forecast the far-right National Front, whose leader Marine Le Pen won 17.9 percent of a first-round presidential vote in late April, scoring between zero and three seats.
In one high-profile battle, Le Pen and hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon went head-to-head in the northern Calais region, although they are expected to lose to a Socialist in round two.
In another closely watched race, Hollande's former partner Segolene Royal, who ran for president in 2007, hoped to beat a maverick leftist in the western seaside town of La Rochelle.
(Writing by Brian Love and Catherine Bremer; Additional reporting Alexandria Sage in Paris, Pierre Savary in Lille and Daniel Flynn in Montbeliard; Editing by Pravin Char)
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