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France: Conservatives Score Major Electoral Victory

Conservatives have won a resounding victory in the first round of France's legislative elections, virtually guaranteeing them a substantial majority in the National Assembly after the second-round vote on 16 June. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent Joel Blocker reports that extremists and mavericks on both the left and right suffered severe setbacks in yesterday's balloting, while a record number of abstentions indicates many supporters of the left chose not to vote at all.

Paris, 10 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's balloting in the first round of the French legislative elections gave the country's conservatives a surprisingly large victory. The center-right won 44 percent of the vote, compared to 36.4 percent for the left.

Once confirmed in the second-round voting on on 16 June, France's center-right bloc is expected to gain between 380 and 446 seats in the 577-member National Assembly (lower house). That would constitute a strong affirmative response to newly re-elected conservative President Jacques Chirac's recent call for a "clear and consistent legislative majority" to enact the program and reforms he promised in his campaign.

One conservative spokesman attributed the center-right's success to its having unified most of its supporters in one overall party, the Union of the Presidential Majority, known by its French abbreviation, UMP. Speaking last night on France2 public television, Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon said: "For a democracy to function well, you need two big centralized political groups that can alternate in holding governmental power. During the past several years, the right was no longer capable of doing that because it was too splintered. So, in creating the UMP, in rallying behind the president and the programs that we put together with him -- which won't only work for the right -- this [new] group will give us political stability [and] a long time in office that we never had [in recent years] because our internal divisions were in large part responsible for our fragility."

But Socialist and other left officials pointed to the danger they see in the right now controlling all of France's major governmental bodies. These include the Senate and Constitutional Council (a French variant of the U.S. Supreme Court), as well as the National Assembly. Former Socialist Finance Minister Laurent Fabius put it this way on France2 TV: "It takes only five minutes to vote, but afterwards you've had it for five years [the length of a National Assembly term]. So it's certainly better to reflect [on one's vote]. It's not healthy for the UMP to hold all the reigns of power. We've seen [the results of such a monopoly] before at the Paris city hall [where Chirac was mayor for two decades, and judicial inquires have since indicted possible links to fraud and abuse of power] and elsewhere. The real issue now is whether a united left can attain enough deputies to balance [the power of the right]."

That possibility seems unlikely, however. Analysts project that the left, which includes the Greens and the Communists, as well as the Socialists, will win only between 127 and 192 seats.

One major reason for the left's collapse is that much of its electorate simply chose not to vote, a decision believed to be in large part responsible for a record abstention rate of 35 percent. Commentators this morning said left voters had stayed away from the ballot boxes either because they were disillusioned with their leaders or did not want to create another "cohabitation" between a conservative president and a left government.

Another surprise result of the first-round voting was a significant falling-off in support for both extreme-right and extreme-left groups, both of which had scored high in the first round of the presidential elections two months ago. This time the far right, which includes a splinter group as well as Jean-Marie le Pen's National Front, won only 12.5 percent of the vote, compared to almost 20 percent in April. The extreme left, which includes three Trotskyist parties, won less than 3 percent of the vote yesterday, less than a third of what it had earlier achieved.

Two other French left parties also suffered defeats yesterday. The Greens won under 5 percent of the vote, less than half of what the party garnered in the last legislative election, in 1997. The same was true of the French Communist Party (PCF), which is likely to lose half of its current 20 seats in the National Assembly, another step in what is now being called the PCF's "fossilization."

As for France's best-known political maverick, former Socialist minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, his bid for political clout was little short of a disaster. Despite fielding more than 300 candidates, Chevenement's Republican Pole Party won only a little more than 1 percent of the vote, and he himself faces a difficult second-round challenge.

Le Pen's National Front party traditionally does worse in legislative than in presidential elections, where its leader's charisma boosts its vote. Still, many voters' dismissal of the party yesterday added up to a severe setback for le Pen. The National Front won only 11 percent of the ballots, compared to 15 percent five years ago and 17 percent in April's presidential first round.

What accounts for the sudden falling off in support for the French extreme right? Commentator Alain Duhamel on RTL Radio this morning said it was part of the country's continuing effort to "atone" for allowing le Pen to make his sensational breakthrough into the second round of the presidential election two months ago. Le Pen's candidacy in the runoff, he recalled, had created great shame within the country and dishonor abroad.

Since then, the commentator went on, millions of French had taken to the streets to demonstrate in defense of "republican" values, and later more than four out of five voters (82 percent) rejected le Pen in the runoff. Duhamel said all that, plus yesterday's election results, suggests that France may not be as politically unhealthy as it appeared to be in April.