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France: Mainstream Right Favored In Legislative Elections

Campaigning for the 9 June first round of legislative elections in France ends today. Most pollsters and pundits predict a victory for the mainstream right, led by newly re-elected President Jacques Chirac. But RFE/RL reports that the role of Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme-right National Front Party remains a crucial indeterminate factor.

Paris, 7 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For the third time in two months, French voters will go the polls on 9 June in the first round of elections for a new National Assembly. The second round, which will actually determine the assembly's new political configuration, is scheduled for a week later (16 June).

The legislative balloting follows two rounds of voting in presidential elections (21 April and 5 May) that ended in the re-election of conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac by a record majority (82 percent).

But the record was set because Chirac's opponent was not, as expected, outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, but rather Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front Party. Le Pen edged out Jospin in the first round, his biggest electoral triumph ever. In the run-off balloting, however, voters of the left, center, and mainstream-right parties joined in backing Chirac.

Chirac this week (5 June) called on the French to give him what he called "a real [legislative] majority" in order to realize his campaign promises. Interviewed on France3 television, he said: "It's quite clear that faced with the problems which confront us -- whose importance the French signaled publicly during the first round of the presidential election -- we need [vigorous] action that is reinforced by a real majority. And, to speak the truth, there is no alternative to that necessity."

Chirac went on to warn against the dangers of a new "cohabitation" between a conservative president and a left-leaning government as occurred during the five years (1997-2002) of Jospin's government. He said past experience had proved that what Chirac described as "an active government" must be supported by a legislature that allows it to take major steps and implement necessary reforms.

According to several recent opinion polls, a majority (between 50 and 55 percent) of the French now agree with Chirac that cohabitation tends to paralyze the country and prevent it from moving forward. That majority, the polls say, includes many Socialist voters who, fearing a new cohabitation, actually favor a legislative victory by the right. Some of them intend simply to abstain on 9 June.

Last night, a senior Socialist spokesman responded to Chirac's call for "a clear and consistent [legislative] majority" with an appeal to left-of-center voters to go to the polls. Former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn said: "I agree with him [Chirac] on that point. But in fact 'a clear and consistent majority' can be a clear and consistent majority of the left. And today nothing is yet decided that obliges the 56th [government of the French Fifth Republic] to be a government of the right."

Strauss-Kahn, considered a possible future prime minister, described Chirac's huge majority in the presidential run-off as a "republican mandate" to fight against the extreme right, not an endorsement of the president's program or politics. It is the legislative elections, he stressed, that will determine the new government's political character.

Yet, according to virtually all recent polls, the mainstream right is likely to dominate the new National Assembly. A poll taken on 5 June by the Ipsos organization, whose results were published today by the daily "Le Figaro," concludes the right will have a majority of between 339 and 381 seats in the 577-member legislature. The left, Ipsos says, will win between 174 and 216 seats, while the National Front will have from zero to four.

France's election law allows not only the top two vote-gainers in the first round to participate in the second, but also any candidate winning the backing of at least 12.5 percent of registered voters in his constituency. A plurality of votes is enough to win a seat in the second round.

This system patently encourages deal making among those who make it into the second round. For example, a representative of one party will offer to desist if his opponent's party agrees to desist in another constituency. And with more than 8,600 candidates in all, representing 15 different political groups plus independents, there is an evident likelihood of quid-pro-quo deals between 9 and 16 June.

Also likely is the role of the National Front as potential spoiler in the mainstream right's dreams of majority. Le Pen is not nearly as interested in winning seats for his party as he is in preventing them from going to Chirac, his long-time political and personal adversary. To do so, he needs as many as possible of his candidates to make it into the second round, so they can determine the final outcome at his orders.

In the last legislative elections in 1997, the National Front won more than 15 percent of the first-round vote, allowing 132 of its candidates to participate in the second round. Their presence often insured the victory of a left candidate, and was a key factor in the left's overall triumph and the creation of a five-year-long left government.

Can Le Pen pull off the same trick this time? The Ipsos poll says no, predicting the National Front will win only 12 percent of the first-round vote.

But when it comes to prospective votes for the far right, French polling organizations have a notoriously bad record. To mention only the most recent and egregious error, none of them foresaw Le Pen's sensational breakthrough into the second round of this year's presidential election.

Several reasons have been cited for this failure. For one, many voters who intend to vote for the extreme right don't admit this to polling organizations.

In fact, the only poll that counts is the 9 June vote. And even that won't be decisive. Ultimately, perhaps, the political deals made between the two rounds will be most important in determining the final outcome. This, as many commentators have noted, is an odd process for a country that prides itself on being not only "republican" but also democratic.