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Tuesday, July 20, 1999 Published at 13:55 GMT 14:55 UK

World: Europe

European Parliament elects new president

A state-of-the-art debating chamber awaits the MEPs

The dominant centre-right in the new European Parliament has flexed its muscles, choosing French MEP Nicole Fontaine as its president.

The vote was held on the Parliament's first day in its brand-new, purpose-built building in the French city of Strasbourg.

[ image: Nicole Fontaine won an easy victory]
Nicole Fontaine won an easy victory
Ms Fontaine - a member of France's UDF party, which sits with the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) bloc - received 306 votes in the 626-member assembly. She won a clear victory over the Socialist candidate, former Portuguese President Mario Soares, who received only 200 votes. Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Green, came third with 49 votes.

Ms Fontaine is the second woman to head the Parliament, after Simone Weil, the French Socialist who served from 1979-82.

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Her victory is the first sign of a shift in power to the right, after last month's European elections. The EPP is now the largest bloc in the Parliament, with 233 seats.

Under a deal agreed last week with the 50-strong Liberal group, Liberal party leader Pat Cox of Ireland will take over the presidency midway through the parliament's five-year term.

It is the first time the Socialists have been kept out of the presidency. Previously, socialist and conservative blocs have shared the presidency between them.

Sizing up the Commission

As the parliament takes political shape, it will hear on Wednesday from the European Commission President, Romani Prodi.

[ image: Romani Prodi must receive parliamentary approval for his team of commissioners]
Romani Prodi must receive parliamentary approval for his team of commissioners
It is not yet clear how far the Parliament will be willing to go in a fight with Mr Prodi over the make-up of his team, but it was only in March that MEPs forced the last Commission to resign, and many of them would like to see that political assertiveness continued.

The crunch will come in the autumn, when parliamentarians begin a series of hearings with each one of the prospective new commissioners.

Angus Roxburgh: MEPs will have to work hard to convince voters of their worth
If they object to any, Mr Prodi will have to decide whether to tough it out or give in. In the event of a really serious clash, the parliament does have the power to veto the whole new Commission in a vote that will be held in mid-September.

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