Socialists hope to win as France votes

Ex-partner among candidates as President Hollande eyes control of parliament

France voted on Sunday in the first round of an election tipped to give the left control of parliament and consolidate President Francois Hollande’s grip on power as he seeks to ease the pain of a debt crisis in Europe.

At stake in the vote for the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, is the new Socialist leader’s ability to rule unfettered as he tries to reboot Europe’s second-largest economy and push other euro zone leaders to adopt new pro-growth measures.

On a rainy day across most of France, voting stations opened at 8 am (0600 GMT). Voting ends at 8 pm, when early returns should give an indication of the size of what polls predict will be a victory for the Socialists and their allies.

After two rounds of voting to pick a president, there were signs of fatigue as another two-stage ballot got under way. The interior ministry reported a marginally lower turnout rate at midday than in the last parliamentary contest in 2007 (21.06 per cent this time versus 22.56 per cent in 2007).
“This whole process is too long,” 76-year-old Jean-Louis Bertrandy said outside a voting station in central Paris.

Among high-profile battles, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and hardline leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, arch-foes who also ran in the presidential election, went head to head in the northern Calais region.

Police said they were called in to settle an argument at one voting station in that constituency over the presence of a National Front official.

Segolene Royal, who has four children with Hollande and ran for president herself in 2007, hoped to win a seat in the western seaside town of La Rochelle, where rivals include a rebel leftist the Socialist Party dropped to make room for Royal.

A second and final round of voting takes place on June 17, determining the makeup of an assembly that Hollande, at the start of a five-year term, will depend on to implement his tax-and-spend programme.

He has promised to reverse a surge in unemployment and erase a government overdraft without exposing voters to welfare cuts and Greek-style austerity. Seeking to set the example ahead of the parliamentary vote, Hollande and his ministers agreed in May to cut their salaries by 30 per cent.

“He’s done exactly what he should be doing. He’s kept his promises,” said pensioner Michael Naiditch, who planned to vote for a left-winger hardliner in his Parisian constituency on Sunday before probably backing a Socialist when it came to the final round in a week’s time.

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