Paris: French voters headed back to the polls on 10 June in parliamentary elections tipped to tighten President Nicolas Sarkozy’s grip on power and give him the mandate he needs to push through ambitious reforms.
Sarkozy’s UMP party has been riding high on the president’s popularity since he was elected last month vowing to put an end to high unemployment, poor economic growth and social discontent in high-immigration suburbs.
The rightwing party has ruled for the last five years in an unpopular government, but opinion polls predict that thanks to Sarkozy’s electoral appeal it will increase its majority and emasculate the already weakened Socialists.
“I think there will be the ‘blue wave´ (the UMP party colour) they’ve been talking about, I don’t think there will any surprises,” said Brigittes Combres, who arrived on her bike to vote at a polling booth in the southwestern city of Toulouse.
Voting stations opened across France at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) for the first round, with round two to be held next Sunday. They close 12 hours later, with normally reliable result projections due out immediately.
Voter turnout was 23% at midday, officials said, much lower than participation at the same time in last month’s presidential vote, when 31% of voters had cast their ballot by noon.
Sarkozy, confident of another electoral triumph, has promised a special parliamentary session in July to push through a raft of reforms including tougher sentencing rules, restrictions on immigration and more autonomy for universities.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s government on Thursday unveiled details of an 11-billion-euro (15-billion-dollar) masterplan to “shock” the economy back to life, the first part of the president’s reform drive.
Just a month after Sarkozy’s 53-47% victory over the Socialist Segolene Royal in the presidential election, voters are returning to the polls to choose the 577 members of the National Assembly from among 7,630 candidates.
Two thirds of the French think Sarkozy has done a good job in his short time in office, according to surveys, and that popularity appears to have paid dividends for his party.
Polls say the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) may take up to 430 seats in a parliamentary “blue wave,” up from its current 359 and far above the 289 needed for a majority.
The Socialists are tipped to win a maximum of 140 seats, down from the current 149.
Reeling from Royal’s presidential defeat, the party appears resigned to another five years in opposition. Its main campaign message has been to warn of a dangerous concentration of powers if there is too big a majority for the UMP.
Analysts say the real question now for the Socialists, who have failed to match the reforms undertaken by other mainstream European leftwing parties, is what lessons they will learn from their defeat.
The centrist candidates, many of whom now back Sarkozy, are likely to hang on to their 20 to 30 seats.
Prospects are bleak for the Communist Party, which is so cash-strapped that it is reportedly considering selling off the building in eastern Paris that serves as its headquarters.
The party, which in the 1970s had as many as 86 seats and in the outgoing National Assembly had 21, may now get less than 10 seats and even as few as two, polls say.
Due to the particularities of the voting system, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front is expected, as usual, to win no seats despite having garnered 10% of the vote in the May presidential election. The Greens are likely to keep two or three seats.
In the first round, any candidate who wins more than 50% of the vote with the support of at least 25% of voters in a constituency will take the seat.
But this usually happens only in a handful of constituencies, with most seats being decided decided in the run-off vote.