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France Conservatives Expected To Win

June 16, 2002

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PARIS (AP) _ Six weeks after re-electing conservative President Jacques Chirac by a landslide, French voters were expected to give him the added strength he seeks on Sunday by choosing a center-right parliament.

The Socialist-led left, which has dominated the National Assembly for five years, is widely expected to lose control of the lower house to a broad coalition of Chirac’s supporters, polls show.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. Sunday for the second round of parliamentary elections. It was the fourth vote in two months for the French _ two rounds for the presidential contest and two for the legislative election.

The president voted in Sarran in southwest France, where he has a chateau, signing a few autographs at the polling station. Chirac’s prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, cast his ballot in the small western town of Chasseneuil-de-Poitou.

``I have confidence,″ Raffarin said. ``The message from the French is clear: They want (their leaders) to take action. After this beautiful summer Sunday, it seems there’s a lot of work waiting for me.″

Despite overwhelming success in the first-round vote a week ago, conservatives have been playing it cautious, warning voters time and again that the battle was not yet won.

Raffarin, however, who would lose his job if the left wins, has confidently released a ministerial schedule for the coming week. If things go as planned, he’ll be attending a commemoration for the late Gen. Charles de Gaulle, meeting the Spanish prime minister and hosting a weekly Cabinet meeting.

Meanwhile, France’s struggling left has been trying to limit the damage, urging voters not to hand all the power to the right.

``Give the left a chance,″ Socialist Party spokesman Vincent Peillon pleaded.

On both sides, politicians have been asking people simply to go to the polls. The first round had a record low turnout at 65 percent.

Some voters were likely suffering political fatigue after an adrenaline-tinged presidential campaign in April and May, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets before the second round to protest the surprise presence of extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the runoff.

At noon, turnout was 20.33 percent _ slightly better than at midday a week ago, when it was at 19.73, the Interior Ministry said.

The first estimations from polling agencies were expected around 8 p.m., the same time that voting booths close.

One of the final opinion polls, conducted by the Ipsos agency and published in Le Figaro newspaper Friday, indicated that Chirac’s Union for the Presidential Majority would win a large majority, with 384-414 seats, compared with the Socialists’ 115-145.

A victory by mainstream conservatives would ensure that Chirac does not see authority vanish in another ``cohabitation″ _ an awkward power-sharing arrangement with the left.

After legislative elections in 1997, Chirac was forced to govern alongside Lionel Jospin, watching as the Socialist prime minister passed major reforms such as shortening the working week to 35 hours.

Many voters said people were tired of the left-right sniping that characterized the cohabitation.

``We’ve had cohabitation for a long time,″ said Elisabeth Tauzin, 53, a voter in Paris. ``We’ve elected a president from the right, and now I think we’ll elect an Assembly on the right to see what it’s like when everyone’s on the same side.″

Since the May 5 presidential election, Chirac’s interim government has worked vigorously to fight rising crime, a campaign that will speed up if he wins the Assembly’s support. He has also promised a tax cut.

In first-round balloting, the mainstream right took more than 43 percent of the vote, while the Socialist-led left won slightly more than 36 percent in the race for the 577-seat chamber.

Though some of the contests were already decided in that vote, most required a runoff.

The leftists weren’t the only ones battered at the polls last weekend. Le Pen’s National Front may end up without any seats in the new Assembly.

This week, Le Pen called his party’s disastrous showing in the first round ``a little mishap″ and promised to come back strong in future elections.

Currently, the National Front has no seats in parliament.

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