First Casualty in French Elections

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PARIS: France's highly unpopular Prime Minister Alain Juppe took the fall on Monday for President Jacques Chirac's humiliation in the first round of legislative elections. Loyally accepting the blame for two years of record unemployment, public spending cuts, wage freezes for state workers and general discontent with the government, Juppe said he will quit the premiership no matter what the outcome in next Sunday's runoff vote. It was Juppe who had persuaded Chirac to call for early elections, on the notion that their conservative coalition would fare better now than wait for next year's scheduled election. But in this first round of voting over the weekend, Chirac's power base, a coalition of center-right parties, suffered its worst showing since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958, winning only 29.9 percent of the vote, with 6.5 percent taken by independent rightist parties. The opposition Left, meanwhile, won 40.6 percent of the popular vote, among which 23.7 percent was for the Socialists, 10 percent for the Communists and 6.9 percent for ecologist parties. French financial markets tumbled and the franc slipped Monday morning on the fear that a victorious Left could scale down Juppe's recent economic reforms and plans to privatize the majority of France's government-controlled companies. The run-off vote is needed because in a majority of the 577 legislative seats no single candidate won enough votes to be seated outright.