Left topples right in France’s rejection of reforms

PARIS (AP) — Profiting from voter anger over unemployment and a colossal miscalculation by President Jacques Chirac, leftist parties scored stunning victories in parliamentary voting Sunday and won the right to share power with the president.
The results represented an extraordinary comeback for the French left after its crushing defeat in parliamentary elections four years ago and an equally dramatic setback for Chirac, who now will be forced to share power with a left-wing government until the end of his term in 2002.
Socialist leader Lionel Jospin will likely be the new prime minister, replacing conservative Alain Juppe just two years after Chirac defeated Jospin in the presidential election.
Entering Sunday’s runoff vote, Chirac’s conservatives faced a tough sell. Voters in this traditionally state-dominated society were weary of calls for further free-market reforms and government downsizing to reduce a nagging 12.8 percent jobless rate and qualify for Europe’s new currency, the euro.
Following its defeat in first-round voting on May 25, Chirac’s center-right coalition also tried to rally disgruntled French voters around the specter of a return to the budget-busting policies of previous Socialist governments. It didn’t work.
While exit polls by three agencies earlier had indicated the Socialists and their non-Communists allies would muster a majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, they missed that goal by 14 seats. The result is that the Socialists will need the support of the Communists, with whom they have quarreled over policy.
According to final official results from the Interior Ministry, the Socialist-led coalition took 275 seats to the conservatives’ 247 seats. The Communists won 39.
“I give my gratitude to the French who gave their confidence to so many candidates of the Socialist Party, the left and the Greens,” Jospin said. “It’s a demand for real change …a demand for an economic and social policy at the service of man.”
“I wish luck to those who will govern France,” a dour Juppe, France’s most unpopular premier since the 1950s, said as he conceded the right’s defeat. “We were unable to convince the French that we were going in the right direction.”
Jospin also noted the “demand for a reorientation of European construction, to which we hold,” referring to the euro and European integration.
Hundreds of Socialist supporters sang and danced outside the party’s election night headquarters on the Left Bank, chanting “Jospin, Jospin.”
The losing Conservatives acknowledged that they had not effectively made their case to French voters.
Conservative ex-Premier Edouard Balladur admitted that conservatives have to “recapture the confidence of those who left us. This is our task for the future.”
Unless Chirac calls new elections, which he has the power to do a year after the election, the new National Assembly will remain until 2002, when Chirac’s term also comes to an end.
Meanwhile, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen called for Chirac’s resignation. “He should give his office back to the people who elected him,” Le Pen said.
Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant party siphoned votes from the governing coalition, had endorsed only a handful of non-Front candidates and called for the defeat of several leading conservatives, including Juppe.
Chirac has sought to cut the budget deficit from 4.2 percent of gross domestic product last year to 3 percent by the end of this year to qualify for the euro, planned for 1999.