Socialists set to form next French government but Front National may enter parliament

By Tony Cross

France’s newly elected President François Hollande can count on a Socialist-led government being elected next weekend, judging by results in the weekend’s first round of the French parliamentary election. But, for the first time for 24 years, there may be MPs from the far-right Front National (FN) in the National Assembly.

Hollande’s Socialists could even win enough seats to rule alone, although they are already committed to a coalition with the Greens (EELV) and the Left Radicals (RDG). But Sunday’s first round was not all good news for the left.

Here are some of the main features of the results:

A record abstention rate: At 42 per cent the proportion of electors who did not bother to go to the polls was the highest ever, reflecting a flaccid election campaign and, possibly, a certain amount of voter-fatigue after the saturation media coverage of last month’s presidential poll.

The percentage share: The Socialists (PS) with their allies won an estimated 34.4 per cent; the mainstream right UMP with four allied parties won 34.7 per cent; the Front National won 13.6 per cent; the Left Front won 6.9 per cent; the EELV won 5.5 per cent.

The share of seats: Thanks to the mechanics of French parliamentary elections, parties will not win the same proportion of seats as they did votes. A party needs at least 289 seats to have a majority. The PS is tipped to win 270-300 seats and 310-356 with its allies. The UMP is expected to win 210-240 seats, 224-261 with its allies. The Left Front may get 13-20. The FN up to four.

The Socialists will form the next government, unless …: The PS can expect to form the next government. It might even have enough seats to govern alone. But the Socialists are already committed to include the EELV and the RDG in the government and are probably happy that way. On the other hand, they won’t have to rely on the support of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Front, which hoped to exercise pressure on them from outside the cabinet. But, given the abstention rate, there could be some surprises. It’s just possible that right-wing voters who stayed at home on Sunday will turn out in their droves next weekend.

The Front National is exultant: With 13.6 per cent Marine Le Pen’s far-right party did well but not as well as in the presidential election. Sixty-one of its candidates go through to a second round, 32 of them in three-way deciders. So the Front could have deputies in the National Assembly for the first time since 1998. Le Pen saw her would-be nemesis, Mélenchon, squeezed out of the second round in Hénin-Beaumont. She could be elected, as could lawyer Gilbert Collard, a recent convert to the Front, who is standing in the southern Var region. There was good news, too, for Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. She faces a three-way against a Socialist and a UMP member in another southern constituency. Also in the south, far-right veteran Jacques Bompard came out in the lead in Orange, the southern town where he is mayor.

The UMP faces a dilemma: Fallen from electoral grace along with defeated presidential incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, the UMP is set to lose seats including some previously held by prominent members such as former interior minister Claude Guéant and prime minister François Fillon, who took the precaution of standing in a different one this time. It faces second rounds with three candidates in 46 constituencies and 70 per cent of those have an FN candidate standing, compared to just one seat in 2007. During the election campaign, party leader Jean-François Copé specifically ruled out any agreement with the FN. On Monday party leaders meet to decide whether to maintain their policy of "neither, nor" (no pacts with the FN but no automatic policy whereby UMP candidates withdraw to allow a Socialist to beat an FN candidate, either.) The Socialists have said that they will bow out where necessary to allow a UMPer to be elected instead of a Frontist. Should the UMP reach agreements with the FN? To do so on a national level seems ruled out, it would give more credibility to the FN, up until now stigmatised as outside the “republican camp”, and help it eat away at the UMP’s support. But, according to the polls, most of its voters want deals at least at a local level. And some UMP candidates are in favour, especially if they could lose their seats, like former labour minister Nadine Morano who has appealed to FN voters to back her against a Socialist, saying that they have “shared values”. Some UMP candidates, including Etienne Mourrut who is facing the FN’s Gilbert Collard, have said they are thinking of standing down.

The Left Front flopped: Mélenchon’s presidential campaign raised the hopes of voters to the left of the Socialist Party but the result, with him in fourth place behind Le Pen, was a disappointment. Then came his campaign against Le Pen in Hénin-Beaumont, which again started well but failed to deliver. Candidates elsewhere have done less well than hoped and the Left Front may end up without the 15 seats it needs to form a group in the National Assembly and thus marginalised in the life of parliament. What a come down for its largest component, the Communist Party, which won 182 seats in 1945!

The squeezed middle: After a miserable showing in the presidential election, François Bayrou, the leader of the Modem party, could lose his seat in the National Assembly. With a high 62.8 per cent turnout in his Basque country constituency, he won 23.6 per cent, way behind Socialist Nathalie Chabanne’s 34.9 per cent. To win he needs UMPer Eric Saubatte, who with 21.7 per cent made it to the second round, to bow out. That’s unlikely, given that Bayrou, who is liberal on social issues but right-wing on economic ones, declared he would vote for Hollande in the second round of the presidential poll, unlike most Modem supporters, who voted Sarkozy.

Ségolène Royal may lose her seat: The Socialists’ 2007 presidential candidate may not be able to collect her consolation prize, the presidency of the National Assembly, widely reported to have been promised to her by her ex-partner, François Hollande. After winning 32 per cent in the west-coast town of La Rochelle, she faces a breakaway Socialist, Olivier Falorni, who won 28.9 per cent. UMP candidate Sally Chadjaa, who won 19.5 per cent and was eliminated, has called for a blank vote but some local UMP big guns are ready to back Falorni for the pleasure of seeing Royal take a tumble.