French conservatives triumph: Ecologists flop in first round of voting for assembly

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The Independent Online
FRANCE'S conservative parties headed for a landslide victory last night after the first round of the National Assembly elections yesterday. Early estimates gave the Gaullist RPR and centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) between 440 and 460 of the 577 seats.

The main surprise was the feeble performance of the ecologists who, a few weeks ago, were expected to take up to 15 per cent but won only 7.9 per cent. The second and decisive round of voting takes place on Sunday.

The result will give France a 'cohabitation' government: a conservative cabinet under Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist President. The huge majority will limit the President's room for manoeuvre, unlike in the 1986-88 'cohabitation' when the right's majority was slim. It could herald two years of confrontation up to the next presidential elections.

With the RPR tipped to take between 240 and 250 seats, 40 ahead of the UDF, the next Prime Minister will almost certainly come from the Gaullist party. The strongest candidate is Edouard Balladur, a former Finance Minister. Logically, it should be Jacques Chirac, the RPR leader, who headed the government under the last 'cohabitation', but he has said he does not want the post.

The estimates, based on early returns and exit polls, followed opinion poll predictions faithfully. The conservatives took 40 per cent. The ruling Socialist Party a disastrous 19.7 per cent, which would probably translate into 75 to 100 seats, down from 272.

The far-right National Front took 12.8 per cent. While that is its best score in a parliamentary election, it is two points down on regional elections a year ago. The Communist Party, which could aspire to between 20 and 25 per cent 20 years ago, had 9.4 per cent. Sixty-nine per cent of the 37 million electorate voted - low by French standards.

Pierre Beregovoy, the Socialist Prime Minister, said the result was 'a serious failure'. He blamed it on 'the recession which made the French forget' economic and social improvements. Laurent Fabius, the Socialist Party first secretary and former prime minister, said it was a punishment due 'to the erosion of time, unemployment and disappointment. This punishment is a harsh one.'

Computer projections forecast that the conservatives would take 70 to 90 seats outright, with more than 50 per cent of the vote, in the first round. One was Mr Chirac in his rural Correze constituency. He is the best placed leader on the right to fight the 1995 presidential election. His most likely Socialist opponent, Michel Rocard, took 28.2 per cent to 38.8 for his main conservative rival in his constituency, making his re-election next week problematic. Another winner was Mr Balladur in Paris.

Mr Chirac was careful not to be triumphalist and spoke of the need 'to respect the voters' ahead of Sunday's vote.

His tone was largely prompted by Socialist claims that the right was out for revenge for being in opposition, except for the 1986-88 interlude, for the past 12 years.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Estimated % of vote ----------------------------------------------------------------- Gaullists/UDF 40.0 Socialists 19.7 National Front 12.8 Communists 9.4 Ecologists 7.9 Others 10.0 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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