Only a month after the French went to the polls in near-record numbers to vote in the most impassioned Presidential campaign in recent history, they now seem to be sleep-walking toward legislative elections whose outcome many consider a foregone conclusion. President Nicolas Sarkozy has deftly built on the momentum of his victory in that election, and now looks set to win one of the most commanding parliamentary majorities ever. Still, the conservatives are taking no chances, waging a surprisingly aggressive campaign that contrasts sharply with the laid-back voter attitudes ahead of Saturday's vote.
Opinion polls and projections through the second round of voting on June 16 predict that Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) and its center-right allies will win over 42% of the vote under France's proportional representation rules, that would give the President and his allies between 410 and 430 of the parliament's 577 seats. Leftist parties led by the Socialists are urging the electorate to give them control of parliament as a hedge against the dramatic reforms promised by Sarkozy, but opinion polls suggest voters are not interested in restraining the hand of their new President: Left parties are expected to win no more than 150 seats. And that kind of landslide would give Sarkozy a free hand to slim down welfare programs, liberalize France's labor market, and shrink public debt, without significant interference from the legislature. The real opposition would come in the streets, from the nation's militant unions and ever-ready protesters.
But their commanding lead in the polls hasn't lulled the conservatives into taking the outcome for granted. Led by interim Prime Minister Francois Fillon, UMP candidates have hammered away at the importance of capturing a resounding majority to assist the popular Sarkozy with what they call long-overdue reforms changes they accuse the left of being too ideologically deluded to accept. In reply to leftist accusations that rolling back welfare would penalize the less wealthy to the benefit of the rich, Fillon mocked his rivals as "moralizing impostors." He also smeared leftists opposing the right's promises to curb immigration as those who "no longer dare love France." Many UMP candidates in lower-profile positions than Fillon have been using even stronger language to bash leftist contenders as unpatriotic.
The gloves-off campaigning style of the conservatives seems to be working. Leading Socialist candidates are already talking more about how they'll regroup and reform their party in opposition than about the possibility of victory. And the shrill tone of the UMP campaigning also appears designed to counter any tendency to not bother to vote this time among Sarkozy supporters lulled by his commanding victory in the Presidential race. Although projections indicate France won't equal the stunning 84% participation rate in the Presidential poll, abstention should drop below the 30% barrier for the first time in a legislative election since 1988.