French left bids to cement power in parliament vote

France votes in the opening round of a parliamentary election on Sunday with President Francois Hollande's Socialists and their left-wing allies expected to emerge with a clear majority.

Fresh from his victory last month over right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande is set to consolidate his hold on power as he seeks to navigate France through Europe's financial crisis, rising joblessness and a stagnant economy.

Polls show the Socialists and other left-wingers more than 10 points ahead of parties grouped around the right-wing UMP in the run-up to the first round on Sunday and the second-round vote on June 17.

But the Socialists are anxious to secure enough seats in the lower house National Assembly to form a majority without needing the support of far-left parties such as the Communist-backed Left Front.

The election will also be a litmus test for Marine Le Pen's far-right anti-immigrant National Front party, after she won 18 percent of votes in the first round of the presidential election.

After taking 51.6 percent of the vote in the May 6 presidential run-off, Hollande moved quickly to give the Socialists an edge in the parliamentary election.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's interim government has taken a series of popular steps, including cutting ministers' salaries by 30 percent, vowing to reduce executive pay at state-owned firms and lowering the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.

The Socialists have urged voters to give them a majority in parliament so they can continue implementing their programme.

"What's at stake in this election is simple," Ayrault told Socialist supporters at a recent rally.

"Either he (Hollande) will be able to rely on a solid majority or the right will come back and that will be the end of change."

But the UMP has hit back with warnings that the Socialists are preparing huge tax hikes to pay for what the right says is a fiscally irresponsible spending programme.

UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope said the Socialists are preparing "the biggest-ever tightening of the screws on the middle class" while ex-premier Francois Fillon said the party will "massively boost taxes" if given a majority.

Still, analysts say it's unlikely Hollande will be forced into what the French call "cohabitation" by a right-wing win in the parliamentary vote.

Under France's political system, the president requires a parliamentary majority to maintain a government, otherwise the prime minister is in charge of most domestic policy.

Such cohabitation is rare and has only occurred three times in recent history -- under former Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, who had to deal with right-wing majorities in 1986-88 and 1993-95, and under right-winger Jacques Chirac when the left had a majority between 1997 and 2002.

Opinion polls "largely set aside the possibility of cohabitation, but doubts persist about the make-up of the parliamentary alliance that will give the Socialist Party a majority," said Adelaide Zulfikarpasic, an analyst with the LH2 polling firm.

Polls released this week showed the Socialists and other left-wing parties with between 45 and 46 percent of the vote, ahead of the UMP and its allies on the right with 34 to 35 percent.

Le Pen's National Front followed with 14 to 15 percent.

Pollsters say the figures indicate that the left overall -- including the Left Front and the Greens -- will take upwards of 350 seats in the 577-member Assembly.

But it's not clear whether the Socialists and their main parliamentary allies will get the 289 seats needed for a majority on their own, with pollsters' calculations showing them winning anywhere from 249 to 310 seats.

More than 6,500 candidates will be competing to fill the seats in the Assembly, which sits in a classical column-fronted building facing the River Seine in central Paris.

The left already holds a majority in the upper house Senate, which is indirectly elected.

Voting takes place under a constituency-based simple majority system, but in two rounds.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round, any contender with more than 12.5 percent of the vote is allowed to stay in the race for the second round.

Observers will also be keeping an eye on the result for the National Front, as Le Pen looks to cement her party's place in national politics after her strong showing in the presidential vote.

She is also facing a personal challenge from the Left Front's Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won 11 percent in the presidential vote and has chosen to battle Le Pen head-on in Henin-Beaumont, a rundown former mining constituency near the northern city of Lille.

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