In a stunning repudiation of President Jacques Chirac, with five years of his term still to run, French voters gave a clear majority of seats in the National Assembly to the Socialists, Communists and greens. The next French government is likely to include several Communist ministers, making this the only country in Europe where avowed Communists hold a share of power.
Computer projections of the result gave 290 seats to the Socialists and allies, 36 to the Communists, 249 to the centre-right and one to the far- right National Front. Thus the combined left was projected to win a total of 326 seats; 289 are needed for a majority. At least three centre-right ministers lost their seats.
A large, boisterous, mostly young, crowd gathered last night outside the Socialists' election-night headquarters on the Boulevard Saint Germain on the Left Bank of Paris to fete the victory. The mood was, however, less ecstatic than on previous victory nights for the Left, in 1981 and 1988; officials said there was a sense of enormous national and European problems lying ahead.
Lionel Jospin, the Socialist leader, 59, who should become prime minister within a fortnight, greeted the result with "joy, pride and a sense of responsibility". He said the vote was "a demand for real progress in the long-term ... a profound renewal of our public life and democracy". Philippe Seguin, the man who was expected to be prime minister if the centre- right won, said the result plunged "our entire political system into crisis".
The result was, above all, a humiliation for President Chirac, who called the election nine months early in the hope of winning tactical surprise for the governing centre-right coalition of his own RPR (Gaullist) party and the UDF alliance of small right and centre parties. In the event, it was the centre-right which entered the second round of the elections yesterday in near-total disarray, without a prime ministerial candidate or a coherent set of policies.
The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, announced that he would stand down following the unexpectedly strong performance of the Left in the first round a week ago. The centre-right parties hoped his decision would bring many disgruntled middle-class voters, who abstained last week, back to the polling booths. The turn-out did increase sharply yesterday, but the extra voters seemed to have turned to the left as much as to the right.
Although the decision rests formally with President Chirac, it seems certain that Mr Juppe's successor as prime minister will be Mr Jospin. A former university professor and minister for education, his position as Socialist leader had seemed under threat earlier this year. He made a lacklustre opposition leader but, as in 1995, when he was narrowly defeated for the presidency by Mr Chirac, he ran a vigorous and competent campaign.
He none the less owes yesterday's success largely to two factors outside his control. The first was the great unpopularity of Mr Chirac and Mr Juppe, who failed to deliver on the campaign promises of 1995 to attack unemployment and heal "social fracture". Mr Juppe ran a confused, limp campaign, in which he failed to put up a coherent defence of his government's attempts to shrink the welfare state and public sector.
The second factor helping the Left was the continuing rise of the far- right National Front (FN), which maintained candidates in more than 100 constituencies yesterday, splitting the right-wing electorate. But despite its record 15 per cent score in the first round, computer projections last night suggested that the FN would win no more than one seat.
Mr Jospin campaigned to make the short-term battle against unemployment - running at 12.8 per cent - the centre-piece of government policy. In particular, he said he would insist on a softer interpretation of the fiscal and budgetary guidelines for membership of the European single currency.
Such a reopening of the negotiations could force EU governments to abandon the single currency altogether. On the other hand, it could provide cover for member states to reconsider the whole timetable and delay Economic and Monetary Union (Emu) for several years.
It may fall to one of the godparents of Emu to try to sort out the mess. It has been rumoured in recent days that Mr Jospin would appoint the former European Commission president Jacques Delors as foreign minister or minister for Europe.
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