French president set to consolidate power | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.06.2012
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Europe

French president set to consolidate power

France voted in the opening round of a parliamentary election on Sunday. The Socialists and left-leaning allies, who already control the Senate, came out on top, further strengthening President Francois Hollande.

Germany and France march to the beat of different drums - that has become abundantly clear to the new Franco-German leadership team Hollande and Merkel as they struggle to align their policies. It's also become clear to Germans observing the parliamentary elections in France, where both communists and right-wing populists are set to take seats in the Assembly.

Hollande's Socialists and other left-wingers, including the communist-backed Left Front, came out well ahead of their challengers, racking up a combined 53 percent of the vote and confirming past experience that a newly elected president always wins a parliamentary majority in the following national vote.

This year marked the first time that voters could cast their ballot via the internet. That possibility was open to French expatriates, who voted a week ahead of the regular first round of national polls on Sunday, June 10.

French President Francois Hollande, center, poses with his ministers

Hollande' current cabinet is waiting for the election results

Two-round vote

In the French parliamentary electoral system, the devil is in the details. A key factor are the deals the political parties strike months ahead of the vote, setting the possible foundation for government coalitions. As early as last year, the Socialists promised the Greens - now their coalition partners - that they would refrain from nominating their own candidates in more than 60 constituencies. Without such an election pact, the chances that the Greens would get into parliament - they have two ministers in the interim government Hollande named in mid-May­ - would be close to zero. A Socialist pact with Jean-Luc Melenchon's communist-backed Left Front coalition, however, failed a few days ago.

All the same, quite a few candidates from the communist-backed movement are expected to win seats in parliament in the second round of voting on June 17: not only the first two candidates qualify but also those who win more than 12,5 percent of the vote. And since running for the presidency last month, radical Left Front leader Jean-Luc Melenchon has been on a roll.

Left Front leanings

The Socialist Party (PS) did not win an overall majority in the National Assembly, so the party will depend on forming a coalition government with the Greens and the Left Front. In a probable scenario ahead of the second round of voting, a number of Socialist candidates might withdraw in order to give Left Front candidates a better chance of winning seats.

But a strong showing by the extreme left might endanger the consolidation of France's state finances, Emiliano Grossman, a political scientist at the Paris-based Sciences Po, warned.

Dr. Norbert Wagner

Wagner sees the UMP squeezed from both sides

"Francois Hollande is a moderate socialist," he told DW. "His pledges for a growth pact boil down to a few cosmetic changes in the European fiscal compact. Should the Left Front do really well in the polls, however, there would be much more pressure for a more comprehensive reform," he said. "That could be a problem for the entire European Union and for France's relations with Germany."

The number of seats the Greens and the Left Front might win matters; after all, parliament has a large say in social and economic issues.

According to Norbert Wagner, head of the Paris branch of Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the president made costly election campaign promises that can only be realized with a left-wing majority in parliament. They include lowering the retirement age to 60 for some workers and introducing more civil service jobs. The proposed 75 percent tax rate on salaries over a million euros ($1.25 million) won't pay for those promises. The government estimates costs for the retirement plan alone will amount to the billion euros over the next five years. France's conservative parties have called the government's course adventurous, estimating costs for the initial program at a whopping 20 billion euros.

Post-Sarkozy era

Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) saw sobering results on Sunday, garnering 34 percent of the vote.

The UMP's main problem is Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front (FN), which earned nearly 14 percent of votes. "The center-right is sandwiched between two sides putting on pressure," Wagner said. "There's a great danger in many constituencies that FN candidates might make it to the second round of voting." In a competition with the Left and the FN, UMP candidates regularly lose, he said, adding that a weakened conservative camp will most likely lay the foundation for a socialist victory.

France's far right National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen - is she the kingmaker?

A deal between the UMP and the National Front could solve that dilemma, but the conservatives traditionally refuse such coalitions. A pact with the UMP is not in the far-right party's interest in any case. "Marine Le Pen wants to destroy the UMP and then swallow what's left," Wagner said. "The bigger the defeat for the UMP, the bigger the chances are for serious tensions among the center-right." With an eye on the next presidential election in 2017, FN leader Le Pen is banking on just that happening.

High stakes

Le Pen's National Front looks set to enter parliament for the first time since 1986 - and that would be a political turning point. 25 years ago, the anti-immigrant party benefited from the system of proportional representation, introduced by President Francois Mitterrand. If the party re-enters the National Assembly now, it will do so under the much stricter terms of the majority vote system.

"The FN is leaving its legacy as a protest party behind," Grossman noted. He said Marine Le Pen has removed neo-Nazi circles from the FN and has made progress in putting an end to racist remarks from within the party.

Her clean-up efforts notwithstanding, the far-right percentage of the vote remains negligible among expatriates in Germany.

French expatriates as such don't seem to be too interested in the national election back home: no more than 20 percent of those eligible to vote participated in the first round of voting.

Author: Andreas Noll / db
Editor: Michael Lawton

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