Hollande set for slim parliament win

PARIS Tue May 29, 2012 11:55am EDT

PARIS (Reuters) - The presidency under its belt, France's Socialist Party is set to beat the conservative UMP in June parliamentary elections but may fall short of a majority strong enough to give President Francois Hollande a completely free hand to pass legislation.

Internal divisions in the UMP since Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidency this month are compounding the likelihood of it losing its majority in the National Assembly (lower house), nine months after it lost the Senate (upper house) to the left.

An Ipsos opinion poll for the June 10 and 17 vote published on Tuesday suggested the Socialists will fall short of an absolute majority of the lower house's 577 seats, leaving Hollande dependent on Greens and hardline leftists to ensure backing for any legislation.

"The left is the favorite for the parliamentary elections but this risks being a narrow victory in terms of seats, which is not surprising given how close the presidential election was," said Ipsos analyst Jean-Francois Doridot.

"It may leave Hollande dependent on the Left Front, but at the same time the Socialists should have more seats than the UMP so things would remain very governable for Hollande."

The Ipsos survey, much in line with earlier soundings, gave left-wing parties 45 percent of the parliamentary vote compared to 35 percent for the UMP and its centre-right allies.

But the 45 percent includes 6 percent for the Greens and 8 percent for the Left Front, a coalition of Communists and radicals that could abstain or vote against laws they consider too liberal. The share of the vote going to parties Hollande can fully count on to back him was a much lower 31 percent.

Hollande, considered a moderate social democrat, plans to create public sector jobs and keep public finances on track via tax increases that should result from a broad fiscal reform over the summer.

He is also under pressure to ratify a European treaty on budget control that was agreed under his predecessor Sarkozy, although he has won time on that by seeking talks first with European partners on adding pro-growth clauses to the pact.

FIERCE CAMPAIGN AHEAD

Hollande won the May 6 presidential runoff with 51.6 percent to Sarkozy's 48.4 percent, after the incumbent was punished for failing to bring down rampant unemployment during a three-year economic crisis as well as for a personal manner many dislike.

Opinion polls consistently put the left in front, with Hollande also winning sound popularity ratings of 53 to 61 percent after a whirlwind first few days in office.

Analysts caution, though, that it is hard to extrapolate that at this stage into a prediction of actual assembly seats.

The legislative voting system means any candidate who wins more than 12.5 percent of registered votes goes through to the second round, meaning many constituencies could end up with more than two candidates facing off on June 17.

Analysts see it as near impossible that the UMP could win a majority, despite the fact that the unpopular Sarkozy is lying low and staying well away from its campaign, but they say the Socialists might still scrape together an absolute majority if they campaign hard.

"Hollande has already made clear that he needs a definite and stable parliamentary majority to get France back on track and that's what the Socialists will base their campaign on," said Stephane Rozes of the CAP political consultancy.

With campaigning at local level gathering momentum, the UMP looks set to suffer from an internal power struggle between two heavyweights vying for control of the party and the mandate to be its 2017 presidential candidate.

Animosity between UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope and former prime minister Francois Fillon has exploded into public feuding, sparking calls from other UMP grandees for the two to put that battle aside until after June 17.

The UMP will stress in its campaign that it would be dangerous to hand the Socialists control of the lower house after they already have the Senate and the presidency.

"We need the maximum of UMP deputies to avoid irreparable harm," Cope told RTL radio on Tuesday.

But the party will be hampered too by high support for the far-right National Front, which won a surprise 17.9 percent of the first-round presidential vote. The UMP has ruled out any alliance with the party, which wants France to leave the euro and preserve jobs for French nationals over immigrants.

The Socialists, on the other hand, could strike a deal with hard leftists and Greens between parliamentary rounds to ensure they stay mainly on board on key laws.

Hollande may even end up securing parliamentary backing from the centre-right after centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou broke with tradition in April and refused to back Sarkozy for re-election, analysts said.

That said, the Ipsos poll gave Bayrou's Democratic Movement just 2 percent support versus 15 percent for the National Front.

"Hollande will have a relative majority. After that, everything will depend on the exact margin and support for legislation could be very much on a case-by-case basis," said political scientist Mariette Sineau at the CEVIPOF institute.

(Reporting By Catherine Bremer; Editing by Brian Love)