French general elections Sunday will begin to determine whether new president François Hollande will govern Europe’s No. 2 nation with a clear majority or lead a divided government during the worst European crisis of money and confidence in decades.
Mr. Hollande, a pragmatic pro-European Social Democrat, has said he would like to rebalance the current austerity policy in the European Union with a variety of growth policies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled some flexibility this week with her calls for “more Europe” and a “political union” as Spain grapples with an acute banking crisis and Greece prepares for a new election June 17 in the midst of tumult, both of which are a serious test for Europe's future.
The French parliamentary vote takes place in two rounds, one tomorrow and one June 17. Hollande’s Socialist Party, coming off the May 5 presidential victory, wants to wrest control of the 577-member National Assembly from the right-wing party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, which holds a majority.
French voters have historically given the winner of presidential elections a mandate, though not always. Polls show the Socialists, in league with a variety of left parties, currently winning as many as 320 seats – enough for an outright majority.
The Socialists anticipate a political coalition with the Europe Ecology party and the Greens – leftist parties that would support broader European initiatives. But if Hollande needs the support of far left nationalist figure Jean-Luc Melenchon, who opposes further European federal answers, he could be constrained in pursuit of bolder initiatives.
Moreover, the French right, represented mainly by Mr. Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement, has been riven over the extent to which it wants to ally itself with the far-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen. UMP officials say privately they do not have a coherent or unified policy and will likely to be ready to coalesce only after the general elections.
UMP member Jacques Myard told France 24 TV that France “voted against Sarkozy but not necessarily for Hollande” in May and that the outcome is still unclear. Polls project the Socialists will win 36 percent of the vote, and the UMP 32 percent.
The National Front, variously anti-Europe and anti-immigrant, is running candidates in the local elections and the party could pick up its first seats in parliament since the 1997 election, although likely less than 10.
But these elections, which have not sparked much enthusiasm in either the French public or media, may ultimately swing on turnout.
In random interviews around Paris, several French citizens said they hadn’t decided if they would vote. Their enthusiasm was low after a year of intense political speculation following the sex scandal last June entangling the presumptive Socialist nominee, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Still, given the stakes for Europe, this is "an incredibly important election,” says John Gaffney of Aston University in the UK. “Even if the French have lost interest in it…. which is quite a paradox.”