French voters hand mandate to Hollande

New president's Socialists set to gain majority in National Assembly, bolstering his plans for "tax-and-spend" agenda.

    French President Francois Hollande's Socialists and allies have come out on top in first-round parliamentary elections, and appear poised to secure the majority needed to push through reforms aimed at bolstering France's ailing economy.

    The Socialists, the Greens and other aligned parties won about 46 per cent of the vote, ahead of the 34 per cent for ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party and its allies, according to the final results released by the interior ministry.

    The results suggest that Hollande will be able to count on obtaining the 289 seats needed for an outright majority in the lower-house National Assembly following next Sunday's runoff vote.

    That would represent a pronounced swing to the left in France since the last elections in 2007, when UMP won 320 seats compared to the Socialists' 204 seats.

    The election also saw a surge in support for Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front, which wants to ditch the euro, to 13.6 per cent as compared to 4.0 per cent achieved in 2007.

    Le Pen, who came third in last month's race for the French presidency, easily beat hard left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round of voting on Sunday for a northern French seat that has become one of the main focal points of parliamentary elections.

    Pollsters TNS Sofres, Ipos and OpinonWay agreed that the Socialists and close allies might win between 283-329 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly and could hold power in the parliament even without relying on the votes of the Greens or the anti-capitalist Left Front.

    Hollande defeated Sarkozy in last month's presidential election and wants voters to give him a strong mandate to enact reforms as France battles Europe's crippling debt crisis, rising joblessness and a stagnant economy.

    If next Sunday's second-round confirms the results, it will boost his status in Europe as champion of the movement away from German-led austerity programmes currently being widely implemented across the continent towards growth, which he favours as the solution to the economic crisis.

    New teachers

    The newly elected leader has pledged to hire an extra 60,000 new teachers and to hit top earners with a 50 per cent tax rate on some of their income as part of a tax-and-spend programme.

    More than 6,500 candidates competed in Sunday's vote, which takes place over two rounds under a constituency-based simple majority system.

    If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent in the first round, any contender who scores more than 12.5 per cent of the vote can stay in the race for the second round.

    The new lower house serves for the next five years, coinciding with Hollande's five-year term. The left already holds a majority in the upper house Senate, which is indirectly elected.

    The 57-year-old leader has been lobbying European leaders, chief among them German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the way to handle eurozone crisis.

    He wants a fiscal responsibility pact signed by Sarkozy to be reworked, arguing that it needs more pro-growth measures as opposed to Merkel’s austerity approach.

    Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's interim government has taken a series of popular steps, including cutting ministers' salaries by 30 per cent, vowing to reduce executive pay at state-owned firms and lowering the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.

    But Sarkozy's UMP party has hit back with warnings that the Socialists are preparing huge tax rises to pay for what the right says is a fiscally irresponsible spending programme.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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