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French president's party wins majority in assembly

June 18, 2007|Achrene Sicakyuz | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right party won a solid majority of seats in National Assembly elections Sunday, giving him the backing he needs to implement sweeping reforms promised during his own recent election campaign.

But Sarkozy's party fell short of the landslide victory predicted in polls last week, as voters apparently heeded Socialist Party warnings about a tax increase and unchecked presidential power.

Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, will have at least 314 seats in the 577-member National Assembly, according to final results in the second round of parliamentary elections. However, the party did not win the 450 seats predicted by polls, which would have allowed it to thoroughly dominate the Parliament.

The Socialist Party, the main opposition force, will hold 185 seats in the assembly, and the Communist Party will have 15. The remainder are scattered among small parties.

Sarkozy had appeared to be politically unstoppable after he handily defeated Segolene Royal of the Socialist Party in last month's presidential runoff election. But his administration stumbled in recent days as Economy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo announced a possible increase in the value-added tax, or VAT, on consumer goods. Socialists seized the issue to attack government policies, backed by polls clearly showing the unpopularity of the measure.

"The issue of the social VAT was not well managed by the government's communication department but well exploited by the Socialists," said political analyst Christophe Barbier on LCI television. "The voters also chose to balance the powers at the [National] Assembly and not create a presidential regime."

Nonetheless, the UMP expressed confidence that Sarkozy could pursue his goals with the healthy majority he won.

"Your participation expressed a clear and coherent choice," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told voters. "It allows the president to realize his plans. Our democracy is strengthened by this long campaign."

The MoDem party of Francois Bayrou, who came in a distant third in the presidential voting, won only three seats, failing in its bid to become an effective centrist counterweight to the president's majority on the right and the Socialists on the left. Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme right National Front will have no seats.

It was the first time in 30 years that a party holding a majority in the assembly retained control after an election. Voter turnout was only 60%, considerably behind the 84% in last month's presidential runoff election.

The National Assembly will soon open a special session to tackle some of the legislative changes sought by the new president. Sarkozy has vowed to reform France's 35-hour workweek to allow some employees to work longer shifts, tighten immigration laws, stiffen sentences for criminals who have previous convictions, require minimum public services during labor strikes and limit the taxes on wages.

Even though the Socialists will probably not be able to stop passage of the reforms, the task awaiting the government's majority in the assembly will nevertheless be tricky. Finding the funding for some of the changes and gaining the necessary support of unions and business groups will be the main obstacles.

Sarkozy had already warned labor leaders that if an agreement was not reached by September on a measure that would ensure minimum public services during France's frequent labor strikes, he would push the law through the assembly anyway.

Unlike neighboring Spain, which has loosened its immigration laws and become a magnet for both legal and illegal immigration, Sarkozy wants to tighten rules for granting visas and for allowing new immigrants to join family already in France.

Meanwhile, the Socialist Party must find a way to revitalize itself after two stinging electoral defeats in less than two months. The party also must take into account the demand for change evident among members who chose Royal in the primaries over two former Socialist ministers known as "the elephants" for their long experience of leadership.

"The Socialists have to face two requirements," said Fran- cois Hollande, a party leader. "We must be a useful opposition and draw all the lessons from these elections. We must renew the left and rebuild it."

Shortly after his election, Sarkozy had vowed to bring Socialists into the government. Fillon confirmed before Sunday's results were announced that he would stick to that plan.

"The majority will respect the opposition and strengthen its rights," Fillon said. "There is no left people versus right people but only France's people. All sympathies must be respected."

Following a decree by Fillon before the elections, former UMP leader Alain Juppe resigned as environment minister Sunday after he was defeated in the legislative elections.

During his campaign, Sarkozy vowed to increase the powers of the National Assembly. He promised to promote transparency by allowing the president to address the assembly directly, a move that would require constitutional reforms. He also argued that France could not afford to have a legislature held by one party and a presidency held by another, a recurring problem that has weakened governments during the last 25 years.

"You voted for movement," Fillon said. "Well, we will realize it. We will question the habits and taboos bridling our country.

"The time of the elections is over," he added. "The time for gathering has come, the time for action has started."


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