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Hollande poised for stronger grip

French President Francois Hollande, center, embraces a woman in southwestern France on Saturday, the eve of the first round of the French general election. (Associated Press)
French President Francois Hollande, center, embraces a woman in southwestern France on Saturday, the eve of the first round of the French general election. (Associated Press)

PARIS – He calls himself Mr. Normal. But that’s only if “normal” means having the chance to become one of France’s strongest presidents in recent memory.

Francois Hollande, the unassuming politician who won last month’s presidential election, is on the verge of cementing that victory by securing a legislative majority. If his Socialists can achieve that feat at the polls today, or at least join up afterward with allies from like-minded parties, Hollande would occupy a commanding position that France’s left hasn’t enjoyed in a generation.

At stake is not just ascendancy at home, as much as the Socialists relish the prospect. A parliamentary triumph could resonate throughout the European Union, boosting Hollande’s profile as leader of the charge to turn Europe away from its fixation on austerity toward promoting growth as the key to solving its economic crisis.

“Reaching a majority in the assembly would clearly give Hollande more legitimacy to carry out a more radical policy both at home and at the EU level,” Oxford scholar Sophie Heine said. “The political and symbolic weight of France in the EU is still very substantial.”

Since moving into the presidential palace May 15, Hollande already has taken a small step or two on the domestic front, including bringing the retirement age for some workers back down to 60.

Bigger battles lie ahead. France is grappling with a 10 percent unemployment rate, a flat-lining economy and a budget deficit that even the anti-austerity Hollande has promised to shrink – though he has remained deliberately vague as to how in the lead-up to today’s vote.

Although the Socialists could eke out a majority in the 577-seat National Assembly in voting today and runoff elections a week later, many analysts expect the party to fall slightly short. In that case, they would have to work with the Green Party and the more radical Left Front.

That could complicate Hollande’s life. But with control of the assembly, the Senate and many of France’s local authorities, the left would have more levers of power at its disposal than at any time since Francois Mitterrand was elected president in 1981.

By contrast, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement has been struggling mightily since Hollande defeated incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, the diminutive politician whose outsized personality had managed to keep the party together.

Its troubles have benefited the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, scored a stunning 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. Although the National Front can hope for only a small number of seats in the assembly because of the way the French electoral system works, even that result would represent huge progress for it.

Victory for Hollande in the legislative races would strengthen his hand in Brussels as the EU continues to confront the debt and financial crisis that’s threatening the survival of its biggest project, the shared euro currency.

Until last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel dictated the response to the euro crisis, supported by a relatively inactive Sarkozy. Hollande has cast himself as a less pliable partner.


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