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Tuesday, 4 June, 2002, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Q&A: French parliamentary election
French voters are heading to the polls on Sunday for the second round of a general election. BBC News Online explains the importance of the vote and the key issues.

Haven't we only just had a French election?

Yes - but last time it was for president. This time it is members of parliament. All 577 members of the French National Assembly - the lower house of parliament - are being elected.

The presidential election started out as a pretty dull affair, with the two front-runners, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, widely criticised for their uninspiring records and lacklustre manifestos.

But the election jolted to life with Mr Jospin's shock elimination from the first round. National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen fought Mr Chirac in the second round, turning it into a referendum on the far right rather than a traditional left-right contest.

Mr Chirac trounced him, but the whole affair is having a serious knock-on effect on the parliamentary election.

So how is the first poll influencing the second?

Voters have a relatively complicated choice to make. They can vote right-wing, to give President Chirac a government with his own sympathies.

That would end the pre-election situation which saw a right-wing president sharing power with a left-wing prime minister. That five-year "cohabitation" was blamed for creating a policy stalemate, in turn clearing the way for the National Front to gain ground.

But left-leaning or centre-ground voters, who were forced to back Mr Chirac in the second round of the presidential poll, may wish to give the socialists a boost this time. The elimination of Mr Jospin was partly democratic accident, caused by apathy and a split vote, and it was thought that voters might want to embark on something of a collective apology for their first-round "mishap".

In fact, this theory has faded as the campaign has gone on, and most people - including the socialists - now expect the right to win.

The first-round results, putting the right comfortably ahead of the left, seems to have confirmed that voters are about to return a right-wing government to "match" the right-wing president.

What about the National Front?

Jean-Marie Le Pen, buoyed by his presidential success, is working hard to turn his six million presidential votes into parliamentary seats. At the last election in 1997, the National Front won only one seat, which it later lost on appeal.

This time, it had been thought possible that he could end up holding the balance of power in parliament.

But Mr Pen's support in the parliamentary election first round was well down on his presidential showing, and it may be hard to turn his support into victories in specific constituencies. There are four constituencies where victory seems possible.

What strategies have the parties adopted?

The main right-wing parties have formed an alliance, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), to try to stop a fragmented vote benefiting Mr Le Pen. Confusingly, one of the parties, the UDF of Francois Bayrou, is also fielding its own candidates in some constituencies.

The main left-wing parties have done the same - Socialists, Greens, radical left and communists have joined forces in some constituencies to cut the number of candidates.

What are the issues?

Crime and immigration were the focus of the presidential poll and are still most likely to influence voters. The interim right-wing government appointed by President Chirac after Lionel Jospin's post-election resignation is certainly focusing on looking tough on crime, and includes a powerful new security minister.

The refugee camp at Sangatte near Calais, previously seen as a largely British problem, has suddenly attracted French ministers' interest, probably as a way of demonstrating a tougher approach on immigration and asylum issues.

What's the previous state of the parties in parliament?

In the old parliament, elected in 1997, the socialists had more than 250 seats - more than 100 seats ahead of their nearest rivals, Mr Chirac's RPR party. The next biggest parties were the right-wing UDF, the Liberals, and Communists. Greens and independents made up the balance.

The make-up of the parliament represented a failed gamble for President Chirac - who had dissolved the old parliament early, believing he could win a general election.

Who's expected to win?

The first-round of voting, held on 9 June, gave a comfortable lead nationally to the centre-right UMP, roughly in line with opinion poll predictions.

If the voting pattern is similar in the second round, the centre-right would have a solid parliamentary majority.

After the wake-up call of the presidential poll, parties were taking nothing for granted this time - although as the first round of voting approached, even the socialists appeared to be preparing themselves for defeat.

How does the system work?

The voting takes place in two rounds, in a simple constituency system. To win, a candidate must take an absolute majority in the first round, or a simple majority in the second - to be held on 16 June.

It is subtly different from the presidential system - where only the top two candidates go through from the first round.

In the parliamentary vote, anyone who gets 12.5% of the first-round vote goes through to the second round. That could create the so-called "triangular" votes - where, for example, mainstream left, mainstream right and far right go through.

However, only relatively few "triangulars" appear to have been created for this year's second round.

This year, an incredibly crowded field added a new dimension to the poll. No fewer than 8,633 candidates were fighting in the 577 constituencies - an average of 15 candidates per seat.

Once elected, each of the new 577 members will represent his or her constituency for five years, unless parliament is dissolved early. The assembly sits in the Palais Bourbon on the banks of the River Seine in Paris.

Who's got the real power - president or parliament?

Unusually for Europe, the president is supposed be largely responsible for driving the government, with his wishes put into effect by his prime minister, and legislation scrutinised and approved by parliament.

But that system grinds to a halt when the two are from different parties. That is thought to be what encouraged the French to cut the presidential term from seven to five, reducing the potential for cohabitation.

Previously, there were repeated overlaps between the two terms of office, creating hitches or ultimately political paralysis.


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