x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

French voters set to test Hollande

A month after Francois Hollande's triumph, the first round of the general election takes place against a background of gloomy economic news that threatens to hamper his ambitions.

Marseille, France //François Hollande's start as French president and his first attempts to introduce socialist policies will be judged today.

Voters return to the polling booths to decide whether the left should be trusted with parliamentary as well as presidential power.

A month after Mr Hollande's triumph, the first round of the general election takes place against a background of gloomy economic news that threatens to hamper his ambitions.

The entire euro zone is engaged in a desperate battle to solve the debt crisis and save the single currency, with crippling effects already suffered by Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Mr Hollande's early responses, including his repeated calls for measures to boost growth instead of relying solely on austerity, are under scrutiny as his Socialist Party attempts to overturn the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) majority.

The final opinion polls were divided on whether the left would win an absolute majority.

The former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has reportedly expressed private doubts about his party's ability to halt the process that swept him from office on May 6.

A socialist victory, even one that depended on support from Jean-Luc Mélenchon's more radical Left Front and the Greens, would avoid the potential chaos of "cohabitation". This occurs when a president's political opponents hold sway in parliament.

One result would be to force Mr Hollande to replace his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, with a figure acceptable to the right.

France's past eras of split power saw governments of one party undermine the presidential authority of another.

Socialists won legislative elections a year after Jacques Chirac began his first term in 1995 and enacted reforms including the controversial reduction of the working week from 39 to 35 hours. Mr Chirac described it as "paralysis".

Whatever shape the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, takes, Europe's crisis is so grave that severe tests of Mr Hollande's commitment to change seem inevitable.

So far, his government has impressed supporters by implementing campaign promises to cut presidential and ministerial salaries by 30 per cent, ease Mr Sarkozy's pension reforms so that some workers regain the right to retire at 60 instead of 62 and impose curbs on rent increases.

As if to answer his predecessor's taunts about a lack of international experience, he has met Barack Obama, the US president, while attending the G8 economic summit and Nato conference.

He also visited French troops in Afghanistan, confirming that they will be withdrawn later this year. He expelled the Syrian ambassador to Paris over the crackdown on dissidents by the ruler Bashar Al Assad, met the Russian president Vladimir Putin and fought his corner with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on how to deal with the euro zone's woes.

His hopes of using a bold tax-and-spend programme to stimulate the economy have suffered an early setback with the European Commission downgrading the former prime minister's François Fillon's forecast of 0.7 per cent growth this year to 0.5 per cent.

Mr Fillon, a contender for the UMP leadership to fill the vacuum left by Mr Sarkozy's withdrawal, has condemned Mr Hollande's policies as disastrous for France.

Mr Hollande knows popular support could wane unless he is able to restore purchasing power and halt a stream of job cuts caused by closures, restructuring or relocation in a host of industries and the service sector.

But with unemployment at a record 11 per cent in the single currency area as a whole, and business in a grim mood, he faces a stiff challenge to his ideas for pursuing a route out of crisis that is fundamentally different from the more rigorous policies adopted by France's traditional EU partner, Germany.

Socialists have a majority in the Sénat, or upper house.

Of the 577 seats in the lower house, 314 are held going into the elections by the UMP and allies, giving the right a comfortable majority with socialists groups holding only 204.