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President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party won a clear but not crushing parliamentary majority in elections Sunday crucial to his ambitious vision for opening up France's economy.
The opposition Socialists, just days ago given up for nearly dead, staged an impressive comeback and expanded their minority in the National Assembly after tapping voter fears of a super-powerful Sarkozy. Also a senior Cabinet minister suffered a stinging legislative loss and immediately announced his resignation.
Sarkozy's UMP party, headed for a projected majority of at least 50 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, will still face little resistance to the rash of measures he plans to introduce within weeks to make France's sluggish economy more competitive and less protective.
But Sunday's legislative runoff suggests that voters in France, long driven by leftist ideals, wanted to send the hard-driving and US-friendly Sarkozy a message that his powers are not absolute, and to keep their concerns in mind.
Some have even predicted mass street protests - like those that stymied former President Jacques Chirac's efforts to free up the economy - or an eruption of violence in France's housing projects if Sarkozy goes too far, too fast.
"The French showed they did not want to give all of the power to Nicolas Sarkozy," former Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou, a Socialist, said Sunday night.
With all but 36 seats left to call, Sarkozy's party and its allies had at least 330 National Assembly seats, and the left had least 206, according to the Interior Ministry. In percentage terms, the popular vote was even closer: with the Socialists and allies getting around 49 percent, barely behind parties on the right. Turnout was at around 60 percent, near the record low.
Pollsters projected that when counting was finished, right-leaning parties would get 339-345 seats, while the opposition left led by the Socialists would have 228-234 seats.
That means the UMP will be weaker than it was in the outgoing parliament, where it enjoyed 359 seats to the Socialists' 149.
It marked the first political hiccup for Sarkozy, a kinetic 52-year-old son of a Hungarian immigrant, since he was elected president last month.
Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande said that his party had resurrected itself.
"It's good for the country," said Hollande. "France will walk on both legs."
Last week's first round of voting had left the Socialists expecting few more than 100 seats, while the buoyant UMP was looking forward to the strongest parliamentary majority in the history of modern France.
Then, in just seven days, the Socialists capitalized on fears of a rubber-stamp parliament for Sarkozy and worries about a 5-percent sales tax increase, intended to finance social programs.
Leftists said the tax would hurt poor and middle-class consumers, and Sarkozy felt obliged to release a public statement saying he would not allow the tax increase if it hurt purchasing power.
"The government started to govern too early," said Etienne Schweisguth, of the Institute of Political Sciences.
Despite the UMP's weaker than predicted performance, the result still marked a milestone: It was the first time since 1978 that voters returned an outgoing parliamentary majority to power.
"France needs a kick in the derriere," said businessman Emmanuel Dochie de la Quintane, 35, on his way to vote for a Sarkozy candidate in Paris.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the right would waste no time in using its majority to "resolutely modernize" France, with parliament called up as soon as next month to approve reforms on labor, employment, consumer spending, law and order, universities, immigration and reducing the disruptiveness of strikes.
"We don't want to wait any longer to launch the renovation that the French are calling for," he said. "We will reform, we will renovate, we will experiment with new ideas ... We will get rid of the defeatism that is suffocating the Republic."
Sarkozy's government has already scheduled an extraordinary session of the new parliament starting June 26.
But the president also faced the prospect of reshuffling his government after senior minister Alain Juppe, who oversaw the environment, energy and other portfolios, lost his legislative battle and immediately announced that he would resign Monday. Juppe is often associated with deeply unpopular reforms he championed in the 1990s as Chirac's prime minister, and was convicted in 2004 in a party financing scandal.
The election was a victory for bipartisanship, squeezing out the once-influential margins.
Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front won was slated to win no seats, after Sarkozy's successful bid to woo Le Pen voters with tough talk on immigrants and crime. For years the spoiler in parliamentary elections, able to help decide the outcome in districts where its candidates were present, the party is on its knees.
The Communists performed better than expected but still weren't expected to win more than 18 seats, according to projections. The Greens looked set to win three or four.
The centrist party of Francois Bayrou, who landed a strong third place in the presidential race this spring and commanded 29 seats in the outgoing parliament, was projected to win three to five seats.
The Socialists' future was the most immediate political question. The long-fractured party had expected to face some deep soul-searching about whether to follow other European leftists who have tilted toward the center.
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