The Washington Times
Monday, June 18, 2007

PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party won a clear parliamentary majority yesterday in elections seen as crucial to his vision for opening up France’s economy, although the opposition thwarted a landslide victory by capitalizing on voter fears of giving Mr. Sarkozy too much power.

Mr. Sarkozy’s UMP party and its allies won 346 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, which was fewer than the 359 seats the UMP used to have. The opposition left took a better-than-expected 226 seats total, led by the Socialists’ 185 seats — a considerable improvement to the party’s 149 seats in the last parliament.

Mr. Sarkozy’s party will face little resistance to the raft of measures he plans to introduce within weeks to make France’s sluggish economy more competitive and less protective.

But yesterday’s legislative runoff suggests that voters in France, long driven by leftist ideals, wanted to send the hard-driving and U.S.-friendly president a message that his powers are not absolute, and to keep their concerns in mind.

Some have even predicted mass street protests — like those that stymied former President Jacques Chirac’s efforts to free up the economy — or an eruption of violence in France’s housing projects if Mr. Sarkozy goes too far, too fast.

“The French showed they did not want to give all of the power to Nicolas Sarkozy,” former Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou, a Socialist, said last night.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the right would waste no time in using its majority to modernize France.

“France is equipped with a majority to act,” he said after voting stations closed. “We will reform, we will renovate, we will experiment with new ideas.”

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande said his party had resurrected itself.

“It’s good for the country,” said Mr. Hollande. “France will walk on both legs.”

Turnout was low, at about 60 percent of voters, less than a percentage point above the record low. Analysts had predicted that a low turnout in the runoff would hurt the leftists.

There were some high-profile losers. Marine Le Pen, daughter of ultranationalist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was beaten by a Socialist. A Socialist also beat France’s most famous anti-terrorist judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who stood for Mr. Sarkozy’s party.

Last week’s first round of voting had left the Socialists expecting just more than 100 seats, while the buoyant UMP was looking forward to the strongest parliamentary majority in the history of modern France.

Then, in just seven days, the Socialists tapped into fears of a rubber-stamp parliament for Mr. Sarkozy and worries about a 5-percent sales tax increase, intended to finance social programs.

“The government started to govern too early,” said Etienne Schweisguth of the Institute of Political Sciences.

Mr. Sarkozy’s government has already scheduled an extraordinary session of the new Parliament for June 26 to begin passing some of his planned proposals, including loosening the 35-hour workweek, guaranteeing minimum service during public transportation strikes and getting tough on repeat lawbreakers and illegal immigration.

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