PARIS (Reuters) - France votes on Sunday in the opening round of a parliamentary election expected to cement President Francois Hollande’s grip on power as the new Socialist leader tries to steer a path through Europe’s biggest crisis in decades.
At stake is Hollande’s capacity to rule effectively as he struggles to reboot a stalled economy, reverse the surge to a 12-year high in joblessness and eliminate a huge government overdraft without depriving 65 million people of the benefits of a generous welfare state.
Hollande also needs enough sway in parliament to be able to pass measures related to the resurgent euro zone crisis, such as ratifying a budget responsibility pact agreed earlier this year and possibly push through constitutional changes to give Brussels more power over national budgets further down the line.
Polls suggest that the vote - in two stages on June 10 and 17 - will give parties of the Left, and maybe the Socialists on their own, control of France’s National Assembly for the first time in a decade.
After two rounds of presidential elections, the nation’s 46 million voters are being urged to cast their ballots for the third time in less than two months, this time to renew the 577-member lower house of parliament, which will work in tandem for the next five years with the 57-year-old Hollande.
“The most likely outcome is that this election confirms and amplifies the presidential election victory,” said Pascal Perrineau, director of the Paris-based Centre for Political Research.
He has promised to balance the country’s public finances by 2017 without resorting to drastic austerity measures, largely by raising taxes, primarily on the rich, to fund priority policies such as schooling and the creation of 150,000 state-aided jobs.
To get there, and underpin his crusade to implement pro-growth measures alongside austerity targets across Europe, France’s first left-wing leader since 1995 needs a co-operative parliament.
After taking 51.6 percent of the presidential vote a month ago to unseat conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande has named an interim government, but he can only get going in earnest once he has a National Assembly that will adopt the raft of economic and social legislation he has promised.
As the upper house of parliament, the Senate, is already controlled by the Left, Hollande just wants the lower house for the full sweep.
He needs it to repeal a rise in sales tax that his predecessors programmed to take effect next October. He will need it too to enact many of his own pledges, such as a partial rollback of pension laws, not to mention the budget legislation.
Barring an upset that no poll has foreseen, Hollande’s Socialists should secure an absolute majority - 289 or more seats - either on their own or with allies that could include Greens and more a hardline group that includes Communists.
Hollande will not then have to make accommodation with Sarkozy’s UMP party. The last time that happened was when President Jacques Chirac called elections in 1997, only to see his Socialist adversaries win parliamentary power, forcing him into five years of “cohabitation”.
An Ipsos poll published this week suggested the Socialist Party and allies could win a controlling chunk of between 303 and 357 seats and that the Socialists might take as many as 291 seats on their own, two more than needed for an outright majority.
That poll gave the Greens - the Socialists’ preferred coalition partners - 17-23 seats, and the Left Front, a group including more radical leftists and Communists, 21-23 seats. It gave Sarkozy’s UMP party between 209 and 255 seats.
In advance voting by French expatriates, Sarkozy’s UMP had lost ground to the Socialists, who fared better than expected. Socialist candidates led after first-round votes in seven of 11 constituencies set aside for expats.
A high abstention rate, analysts say, posed the biggest threat to forecasts. The stay-away rate averaged 25 percent in first-round parliamentary votes until the presidential term was reduced to the same five-year period as that of the National Assembly.
It hit 40 percent in 2007, and anything above that could turn things on their head, said Dominique Reynie, head of Fondapol, a politics think-tank.
One thing that looks reasonably certain is that France’s final election outcome on June 17 will be at least momentarily overshadowed by results on the same day of elections in Greece, which could determine whether that nation is ultimately forced out of the euro, plunging the currency zone into turmoil.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Will Waterman