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France's Sarkozy Wins Poll Despite Resurgent Left

Nicolas Sarkozy, President-elect France
Nicolas Sarkozy, President-elect France

French President Nicolas Sarkozy won a solid parliamentary majority for political and economic reforms on Monday but the voters' rejection of a top minister in a late Socialist surge soured the right's victory celebrations.

Final official results gave Sarkozy a power base of 345 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, well below the crushing 470-seat majority predicted in some pre-poll estimates. Votes appeared to have been lost over a sales tax rise.

Sarkozy, who had been set to complete his government line-up by naming some junior ministers, faced an unexpected reshuffle after his government number two Alain Juppe lost in his Bordeaux stamping ground and promptly announced he would quit.

Sunday's elections left Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and its allies with fewer than the 359 seats they had enjoyed in the outgoing legislature, while the Socialists and their allies increased their haul to 207 from 149.

Despite the setback, the 52-year-old Sarkozy has the legislative muscle to go ahead with reforms to loosen rigid labour laws, trim fat from the public service, cut taxes and restore full employment.

Sarkozy has vowed to shake up the euro zone's second-largest economy and boost annual growth from around 2%. Unemployment is estimated to be at least 8.3%.

In a day of surprises, the left's defeated presidential candidate Segolene Royal said she would separate from Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, adding a new twist to a looming battle for control of the party.

"Against all expectations, the presidential majority did not win the tidal wave it hoped for," the business daily newspaper Les Echos said on Monday.

"It's a readjustment which benefited the Socialists, whose appeal for voters to 'wake up' had an unhoped-for impact."

JUPPE DEFEAT

Juppe, named to run powerful new energy and environment ministry only a month ago, lost to an unknown cancer specialist and was the highest profile victim of the late Socialist surge.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon had ruled any defeated minister would have to go, and the loss deflated celebrations by the UMP, the first party since 1978 to win re-election.

Fillon said the election results would herald a burst of activity by the new
government, which will call a session of parliament for June 26.

"Your participation has resulted in a clear and coherent choice, which will allow the President of the Republic to implement his project," said Fillon.

Among measures due before the new parliament are tax breaks on mortgage interest repayments and overtime, a 50 percent cap on personal taxation, tighter immigration laws and stiffer terms for repeat criminal offenders.

Sarkozy, seen as the business community's favorite, is taking over a fractured, fragile society in need of economic reform and a dose of self-belief even though France is a nuclear power and has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Hollande said voters had heeded warnings a conservative landslide would give Sarkozy unfettered control of the levers of power and that the right had paid for its sales tax plans.

Although they escaped the drubbing they had feared, the Socialists were set for more internal turmoil after it emerged Royal and Hollande, the "power couple" of the left, were to end their long-term union.

Weakened by defeats in both presidential and parliamentary elections, Hollande is under heavy pressure to bow out and separation could clear the way for Royal to make a bid to take over the party leadership she covets.

The Communists won 15 seats and the Greens 4. The centrist Democratic Movement of Francois Bayrou won 3 seats, a disappointment after his 18.5% in the presidential race.