Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sarkozy Party Wins, but Not in Landslide

June 17, 2007
Filed at 9:23 p.m. ET

PARIS (AP) -- President Nicolas Sarkozy's party won a clear parliamentary majority Sunday in elections seen as crucial to his vision for opening up France's economy, although the opposition thwarted a landslide victory by capitalizing on voter fears of giving Sarkozy too much power.

Sarkozy's UMP party will face little resistance to the rash of measures he plans to introduce within weeks to make France's sluggish economy more competitive and less protective.

But Sunday's legislative runoff suggests that voters in France, long driven by leftist ideals, wanted to send the hard-driving and U.S.-friendly president a message that his powers are not absolute, and to keep their concerns in mind.

Some have even predicted mass street protests -- like those that stymied former President Jacques Chirac's efforts to free up the economy -- or an eruption of violence in France's housing projects if Sarkozy goes too far, too fast.

''The French showed they did not want to give all of the power to Nicolas Sarkozy,'' former Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou, a Socialist, said Sunday night.

Sarkozy's party and its allies won 346 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, which was fewer than the 359 seats the UMP used to have. The opposition left took a better-than-expected 226 seats total, led by the Socialists' 185 seats -- a considerable improvement to the party's 149 seats in the last parliament.

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande said that his party had resurrected itself. ''It's good for the country,'' he said. ''France will walk on both legs.''

It marked the first political stumble for the 52-year-old Sarkozy since he was elected president last month. In another blow to the new president, environment and energy minister Alain Juppe lost his race to a Socialist challenger and announced that he would resign Monday, meaning Sarkozy faces the prospect of reshuffling his month-old government.

Last week's first round of voting had left the Socialists expecting just more than 100 seats, while the buoyant UMP was looking forward to the strongest parliamentary majority in the history of modern France.

Then, in just seven days, the Socialists tapped into fears of a rubber-stamp parliament for Sarkozy and worries about a 5-percent sales tax increase, intended to finance social programs.

Leftists said the tax would hurt poor and middle-class consumers, and Sarkozy felt obliged to release a public statement saying he would not allow the tax increase if it hurt purchasing power.

''The government started to govern too early,'' said Etienne Schweisguth, of the Institute of Political Sciences.

Despite the UMP's weaker than predicted performance, the result still marked a milestone: It was the first time in nearly three decades that voters returned an outgoing parliamentary majority to power.

''France needs a kick in the derriere,'' said businessman Emmanuel Dochie de la Quintane, 35, on his way to vote for a Sarkozy candidate in Paris.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the right would waste no time in using its majority to ''resolutely modernize'' France, approving reforms on labor, employment, consumer spending, law and order, universities, immigration and reducing the disruptiveness of strikes.

''We don't want to wait any longer to launch the renovation that the French are calling for,'' he said. ''We will reform, we will renovate, we will experiment with new ideas. ... We will get rid of the defeatism that is suffocating the republic.''

Sarkozy's government has already scheduled an extraordinary session of the new parliament starting June 26.


Associated Press writers John Leicester, Elaine Ganley and Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report.


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