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Conservatives Triumph in French Vote

Europe: In a big win for Chirac, the center-right takes control of National Assembly. Result spells the end of power-sharing blamed for gridlock.

June 17, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — French voters handed President Jacques Chirac a resounding majority in Parliament on Sunday, ending five years of power-sharing that contributed to public discontent and governmental gridlock.

The triumph by Chirac's center-right coalition also ended a turbulent election season that began with a divisive surprise: Jean-Marie Le Pen, a pugnacious far-right candidate, outpolled the Socialist standard-bearer, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, in the first round of voting for president in April.

But as an array of political leaders and thousands of demonstrators accused Le Pen of fascist and intolerant ideas, the incumbent Chirac trounced Le Pen in the presidential runoff in May. The president's new coalition, the Union for the Presidential Majority, went on to dominate the first round of legislative elections last week.

The center-right landslide in the legislative runoff Sunday ensured the ouster of the Socialists, who spent five years in control of the government and the 577-seat National Assembly with Chirac as head of state. That uneasy arrangement, known as "cohabitation," was blamed for the government's seeming inability to confront problems such as crime, pension reform and the integration of Muslim immigrants.

"Jacques Chirac's project has won its majority in Parliament," said Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a veteran of provincial politics whom Chirac appointed to bring the governing elite closer to the voters.

Alluding to that mission, Raffarin declared: "Elections don't erase problems. We will work to simplify and improve the life of the French. We will act with firmness and openness."

The durable 69-year-old Chirac will now have a five-year term in which he can reassert the full powers of the presidency. His coalition, which is more liberal than center-right parties in Europe and the United States, won between 360 and 378 seats in the assembly, while the Socialists won between 157 and 165, according to early projections. An independent rightist party won an estimated 21 seats. A handful of other parties took the remaining seats.

Overall, the right won 55% of the vote and the left had 45% with 96% of ballots counted, according to the Interior Ministry.

Le Pen's National Front party did not win a single seat, according to projections. That weak performance indicated that the far right's ephemeral rise was due more to protest votes and division among leftists than to a sharp turn to the right by the electorate.

Sunday's election also set a record for low turnout. According to pollsters, 37% to 40% of voters stayed home.

The numbers revealed contradictory trends, analysts said. At the expense of smaller parties such as the Communists, whose leader apparently lost his parliamentary seat, many voters have coalesced behind the two dominant political forces of the left and right.

In contrast, sectors of the urban working class and of rural "deep France" are seriously dissatisfied with traditional politics. Such voters backed an assortment of extremist and protest parties during the presidential contest; many simply dropped out of the process during the legislative race.

"You either have people who don't vote or people who have decided to cast what is called the 'useful vote,' " said Edouard Lecerf, director of polling for the Ipsos public opinion firm. "This shows it's more and more difficult to be elected. It's hard to persuade those who have decided not to vote. There is still a lot of dissatisfaction."

The president has taken that troubling political reality to heart, judging from his appointment of Raffarin and others in the interim government formed in May. The Cabinet is unlikely to change much, according to Lecerf. Nor is the government's determination to project the image of hands-on pragmatism embodied by Raffarin. Voters apparently find the prime minister refreshing because his affable, plain-spoken style diverges from the aristocratic aloofness of other politicians.

"Raffarin has shown himself to be very convincing," Lecerf said. "He gives the image of being close to the people. He is a real communication specialist. There is a real thirst for action by the government, and he realizes that."

The French have responded positively to Chirac's moves since his reelection, including the creation of law enforcement task forces to restore order in high-crime zones, according to Ipsos polls. Sunday's results reaffirmed support for Chirac's cautious brand of conservatism.

The president and Raffarin have promised to reduce taxes and modify France's 35-hour workweek. That labor law was created by Jospin to reduce unemployment by reducing the number of hours worked and forcing employers to fill the gap with new hires.

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