PARIS (AP) _ Delivering a setback to President Jacques Chirac, France's leftist opposition capitalized on discontent over record unemployment to win the most votes in first-round parliamentary elections Sunday.

Chirac called the early elections, hoping to win a mandate from the nation's 39 million voters for more austerity and free-market reform. But France's 12.8 percent unemployment was an easy target for Socialists and Communists.

A leftist victory in the June 1 runoff would force Chirac to share power with a leftist prime minister and parliament, now dominated by Chirac's Conservatives. That would likely brake Chirac's policies, criticized as threatening France's cherished system of social and labor protection.

With 98 percent of the districts counted, Chirac's coalition had 36.5 percent of the vote, including that of the independent right; the left _ Socialists, Communists, Ecologists and the independent left _ had 43.1 percent; the far-right National Front 15 percent; and the extreme left 2.5 percent. The rest of the vote was scattered among a number of minor parties. Voter turnout was 68.3 percent.

Chirac called the vote 10 months early, betting he and Prime Minister Alain Juppe could maintain control of parliament before expected new budget cuts, needed this year to qualify for the ``euro,'' the European single currency.

``The president has lost his bet,'' leftist ex-defense minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said.

``The proposals the Socialists have made to this country have been heard,'' said Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, who favors government jobs programs for youth and a shorter work week _ with the same pay _ to spread jobs around.

Juppe responded that ``an eclectic coalition'' on the left, ``whose program drags us 15 years back in time, will not bring about change.''

The first round was ``a warning, a manifestation of discontent,'' Justice Minister Jacques Toubon said on TF-1 television.

Exit polls suggested the left was within reach of taking a majority, if the Socialists and Communists could form a government. A governing coalition needs at least 289 seats out of the 577.

But only a handful of lawmakers won their seats outright with a majority of votes, promising a tough runoff for many. Anyone winning at least 12.5 percent is eligible for the second round.

The BVA polling agency estimated the Socialists would win between 255 and 280 seats, while the Communists would take 17 to 23 seats.

BVA estimated Chirac's coalition would win a combined 250 to 270 seats, while the National Front would win between zero and two seats.

To govern, Jospin would likely have to ally his party with the Communists, who have expressed hostility toward the euro. The last Socialist-Communist government, formed in 1981, ended in dispute when it was forced to back off some leftist policies.

``There is the possibility of all the left-wing forces putting together a coalition to construct a majority,'' Communist leader Robert Hue said on France 2 television.

``We are not yet at the point where we can give details of any accord for a future government,'' he added. ``First we have to win that majority.''

The right will have to depend on support from among members of the far-right National Front, though its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen appeared to rule out his backing.

Chirac ``threw himself personally into the battle. He is defeated. He must leave,'' Le Pen told his supporters.

Le Pen is hostile to the single currency, saying it sells out French sovereignty. Planned for 1999, the euro is part of an effort to turn the 15-nation European Union into an economic superpower. But it requires France to cut its budget deficit by the end of this year to qualify.