- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2002

PARIS France's center-right won an overwhelming parliamentary majority yesterday, giving President Jacques Chirac more power than he has had in five years and leaving the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen with no seats at all.
In the fourth leg of a two-month election marathon, during which the French voted twice for president and twice for National Assembly, voters ended Mr. Chirac's "cohabitation" with a socialist government and handed him a clear mandate to cut taxes, loosen labor laws and implement U.S.-style pension reforms.
According to exit polls last night, conservative parties together won from 385 to 399 seats in the 577-seat lower house of the parliament, against 178 to 192 for the left, which had been in control since 1997. Mr. Chirac's Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) captured 360 to 378 seats.
With 96 percent of the national vote counted, the right had received 55 percent and the left 45 percent, the Interior Ministry said. It also reported that turnout was less than 63 percent, a record low for a legislative election since the Fifth Republic was established in 1958.
"Elections don't solve problems," Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the caretaker premier, who is expected to keep his post, told a cheering crowd at UMP headquarters. "We will assume our duty of action. We have the obligation not to disappoint. We will act with firmness and with openness."
The result was no surprise after the mainstream right achieved a comfortable lead in last week's first round, and Mr. Chirac trounced the anti-immigration Le Pen in the presidential runoff May 5.
The UMP's victory has significance that goes beyond France's borders. Center-right parties are firmly in charge also in Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Italy, and Germany's conservative opposition has a serious chance of winning the September elections.
Such a trend is good news for President Bush, whose administration has not been entirely at ease with the center-left governments that dominated the European political landscape in the second half of the 1990s.
The French Socialists, who had held 314 seats in the last parliament together with their Communist and Green allies, lost the seats of several members of former Premier Lionel Jospin's Cabinet. Mr. Jospin retired from politics after he failed to qualify for the presidential runoff.
"In May, the French people said no to the extreme right, and in June they said no to cohabitation," said Laurent Fabius, Mr. Jospin's finance minister. "The UMP's victory tonight has emerged from these no's. The left is going to have to reflect, rebuild, reunite."
Simone Soussan, 68, a Socialist activist and retired teacher said at the party's headquarters: "When a team loses, you need to change the team."
Yesterday's voters had various reasons to cast ballots, ranging from strong partisan feelings to concerns about abuse of power.
Sudres Casimir, an 80-year-old former tobacco executive, said he wanted to make sure the mainstream right made an excellent showing. He also said the Socialists could not put their party in order.
But Hugo Saldmann, 18, who voted for the first time this year, said he preferred the left this time, although he had favored the right before. "It's too dangerous when one party has a huge majority," he said on his way out of a polling station in Paris' affluent 7th District.
Further north, in the 18th District, where many immigrants live, Yamamoto Aki, the French-born daughter of Japanese immigrants, said it was her "duty" to vote because her parents could not. Her husband, Naji Rachid, said he wanted to erase the "shame" from the first round of the presidential election on April 21, when about 17 percent voted for Mr. Le Pen.
Olivier Regis, a UMP candidate in the 18th District who lost to his Socialist contender, blamed his failure on poor campaigning and not being in touch with the electorate in the predominantly liberal capital.
"The left did very good groundwork," he said in an interview. "They have more links to civil society, while many of our candidates were parachuted here without understanding the people's concerns."


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