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France: Right Wins Strong Mandate To Govern For Five Years

French voters have given the center-right parties loyal to conservative President Jacques Chirac a strong mandate to govern the country for the next five years. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent Joel Blocker reports that despite a record abstention rate of close to 40 percent, yesterday's final round of balloting for the National Assembly provides the conservatives with a chance to enact long-needed reforms.

Paris, 17 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As expected, France's center-right parties won total control of the National Assembly (lower house) in yesterday's run-off balloting. Significantly, however, almost two out of five (39.1 percent) registered French voters failed to turn up at the ballot boxes -- a new national record for abstentions.

The conservatives now hold sway in all of the country's major political bodies, including the Senate and the Constitutional Council (the highest French court). That gives them a rare chance to implement long-needed basic social and economic reforms.

Conservative Prime Minister Jean Raffarin hailed the victory last night in a brief address to supporters of the chief right party, the Union For a Presidential Majority (UMP):

"It's a success for union and confidence, union and confidence between the president and the government, union and confidence between the government and the parliament, union and confidence between the French and our action."

Six weeks ago, then newly re-elected conservative President Jacques Chirac appointed Raffarin to office. Today, Chirac was due to reappoint him as premier, with only small changes expected in the current government.

During the legislative campaign, Raffarin successfully projected a new kind of image for a French prime minister. With a background as both a provincial businessman and politician, he came across as down-to-earth in manner and direct in his discourse. Polls gave him close to a 60 percent popularity rating among the French.

Yesterday's results reflected both Raffarin's popularity and voters' unwillingness to allow another so-called "cohabitation" between a conservative president and a left-leaning legislature. Five years of inaction (1997-2002) in many areas of both domestic and foreign policy apparently convinced many to give Chirac the "clear and consistent legislative majority" he had called for.

The conservatives will occupy 399 of the National Assembly's 577 seats when the new legislature convenes next week (25 June). Of that bloc, 355 won as UMP candidates -- enough alone to control the assembly -- with some 25 from the center-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) and the remainder from small right-leaning parties.

The left -- including the Communists and Greens as well as the once-ruling Socialists -- won the other 178 seats. With only 21 candidates elected, the Communist Party barely retained its privileges as a formal parliamentary group, but its leader, Robert Hue, was defeated and his political future does not look rosy. The Greens will have only three deputies in the new chamber, as compared to seven in the outgoing chamber.

But it was the Socialists who suffered most yesterday, winning only 140 seats. Former Socialist Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn bluntly acknowledged the party's collapse was what he called "a heavy defeat."

Several prominent Socialist leaders lost their seats, including former Social Affairs Minister Martine Aubrey, the chief architect of the compulsory 35-hour workweek introduced by the previous left government.

Analysts noted that Aubrey lacked the backing of many workers in her constituency in the northern rust-belt city of Lille. They said that showed the 35-hour week was favored mainly by the middle class -- who benefited by the increased leisure time it created -- but not by the workers, whose purchasing power has been cut into in proportion to a reduction in their labor.

Despite its victories in both presidential and legislative elections over the past 10 weeks, the right will not have an easy time in introducing change. Chirac has promised a 5-percent reduction in personal income tax and strong action against growing street crime. He and Raffarin are also seeking measures aimed at modifying France's generous pension system and reducing its chronically high unemployment rate -- now almost 10 percent -- by easing restrictions on the private sector in order to create jobs.

In his remarks last night, Raffarin reaffirmed the right's intention to act strongly and quickly:

"We will assume our obligation to take action. We have listened to the message from the French people. I know we have the obligation not to disappoint them. Elections do not erase problems. We will work to make the lives of the French people easier and better."

But in France, while reforms may be proposed by legislatures or governments, it's often actions in what is called "the street" which determine the outcome. And Prime Minister Raffarin will get his first taste of the street next week, when groups representing public-transport workers, doctors, and air-traffic controllers either strike or demonstrate to demand improved working conditions.