PARIS (Reuters) - Socialist Francois Hollande can expect a left-wing parliamentary majority if he wins Sunday’s presidential runoff, and the far-right National Front could shake President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party to its foundations.
If Hollande is elected, as all opinion polls show, history suggests voters will grant him a working majority in legislative elections on June 10 and 17, as they have each time a new president has just been installed.
The only doubt is whether his centre-left Socialist party would have an absolute majority or need support from Communist or Green deputies to pass laws.
“The tradition of the Fifth Republic (since 1958) after a presidential election is that the legislative polls confirm the people’s choice,” said Jean-Luc Parodi, a veteran political scientist attached to the CEVIPOF institute.
“The parliamentary election is usually marked by asymmetric abstention which favors the winning side in the presidential race,” he told Reuters.
Sarkozy’s UMP party, the dominant force in French politics for a decade, could crack under pressure from a resurgent far-right as factions feud over whether to shun or embrace backers of Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front (FN).
If the FN replicated Le Pen’s 17.8 percent score on the first presidential ballot on a high turnout, it could split the right-wing vote in more than half of the 577 constituencies, making it easier for the Socialists to beat Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Under the two-round constituency voting system, candidates who win more than 12.5 percent of registered voters - not of votes cast - are entitled to enter the decisive second ballot.
Le Pen won more than 12.5 percent of registered voters in 353 constituencies on April 22. However turnout in parliamentary elections is normally 10 to 20 points lower than the 80 percent rate in the presidential vote, so the National Front may reach far fewer runoffs.
Nevertheless, analysts expect the far right to be on the second ballot in more than the record 133 constituencies it achieved in 1997, when it split the right-wing vote, effectively handing the parliamentary election to the Socialists.
This raises an existential question for the UMP, formed to unite France’s quarrelsome centre-right movements after a scare in 2002 when Le Pen’s father muscled his way into the presidential election runoff against Gaullist Jacques Chirac.
“There is a risk of the breakup of the UMP,” said Stephane Rozes, president of the CAP political consultancy.
Some on the party’s right flank are keen to end the quarantine around the National Front while the main party leaders have flatly ruled out any electoral or government alliance with Le Pen or her party.
Defence Minister Gerard Longuet, who cut his political teeth with the extreme-right, drew furious rebukes from UMP grandees this week after telling a far-right weekly that Le Pen was now an “interlocutor”. The row was a foretaste of the mayhem that might erupt after a Sarkozy defeat.
“If Sarkozy loses, the parliamentary elections will be a chainsaw massacre for the UMP,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist specialized in the National Front.
Le Pen has said her candidates will stay in the race wherever possible “to make the system implode”. She envisages a “recomposition” of the right around her own party, while some centrists dream of rebuilding a powerful bloc inside or on the ashes of the UMP.
“The FN is in a unique position to apply pressure on the Right, and Marine Le Pen herself has made no secret of her desire to see the UMP edifice tremble and fall,” said Alexandre Deze, professor of political science and author of the book “The National Front: On the Path to Power?”
The far-right party may only win a handful of seats, most likely Le Pen in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, her niece Marion Le Pen-Marechal in the southern town of Carpentras and lawyer Gilbert Collard in the southern Gard region.
But Le Pen believes that some UMP lawmakers, faced with looming defeat in the second round, will defect to her “Marine Blue Rally” - an alliance led by the National Front (FN).
Her party’s biggest role could be as a wrecking ball, decimating the UMP’s parliamentary ranks.
UMP lawmakers are contemplating this prospect with alarm.
“If we lose on Sunday, it’s going to be very difficult for us, especially since we’ll have the FN tripping us up,” said one conservative deputy, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not want to openly envisage Sarkozy’s defeat.
“Many of our friends could bite the dust in three-way races. If we win (the presidential election), we should be able to limit the damage. But either way, the legislative elections are going to be difficult for us.”
If Sarkozy wins on Sunday against all odds, some experts believe he could retain a majority in the National Assembly, although not as big as the 339 UMP and centrist deputies out of 577 which it had in the outgoing legislature.
“If he wins, I expect that the natural legitimacy of a re-elected right-wing president would prevail. I don’t believe the National Front could prevent him securing a parliamentary majority in that case,” Camus told Reuters.
However, some pollsters believe Le Pen’s party could engineer the defeat of enough UMP incumbents to leave parliament without a centre-right majority, possibly forcing a re-elected Sarkozy into sharing power with a centre-left government.
Such a period of left-right “cohabitation” would render policymaking difficult at a time of crisis in the euro zone and could spook financial markets.
If Hollande wins, some investors are concerned that he could be forced to the left to placate hard left or ecologist lawmakers on whom his government might be dependent.
The Socialist Party signed an agreement with the Europe Ecology/Greens party last year to back Green candidates in 30 constituencies deemed winnable in return for support for a joint policy platform.
However, Greens presidential candidate Eva Joly’s weak 2.3 percent presidential score cast doubt on that deal, with several Socialist incumbents who were due to stand down for a Green candidate vowing to stay in the election.
Parodi and Camus both said they doubted the Greens would win the 15 seats required to form a parliamentary group.
The Communists are more strongly implanted in traditionally left-wing regions and seem better placed to retain the group they had in the outgoing legislature, especially since they are likely to cut a deal with the Socialists on mutual support against the right.
Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Giles Elgood