PARIS — The French Socialist Party won a historic majority in Parliament on Sunday, providing recently elected President Francois Hollande with a free hand to govern.
The Socialists now control the country's main political institutions, including both houses of Parliament, the majority of regional councils and the political authorities in the most important French cities, giving Hollande and his government the most power the left has ever had.
The surge of support provides Hollande with a green light for his election manifesto, which promised to tax the rich, impose greater controls on banks and financial institutions and balance France's economic books.
It was also seen as an endorsement of his "growth, not austerity," approach to the economic crisis engulfing Europe, which has put him at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German leader has insisted that countries in the Eurozone, which share the euro currency, rein in public spending.
The elections also marked the return of France's far-right National Front to Parliament for the first time in 24 years. Early counts suggested that party President Marine Le Pen had lost her election bid in the industrialized heartland of northern France. However, her niece, 22-year-old Marion Marechal-Le Pen, won in Provence. She immediately became the youngest lawmaker to enter the French Parliament since 1791.
Early results in the second round of legislative voting on Sunday suggested the Socialists would have at least 298 lawmakers in the National Assembly. Along with other left-wing and Green Party candidates, this would give the French left about 322 seats in the 577-seat lower house. The opposition right-of-center UMP of former President Nicolas Sarkozy was set to win 218 seats, and the National Front three seats.
Gallic voters could be forgiven for feeling election-weary: It was the fourth national vote in two months, after the two-round presidential race in April and May in which Hollande ousted Sarkozy. A record number of French voters — an estimated 44% — chose to abstain. Turnout in the first round of these legislative elections a week ago was just 57%, the lowest since 1958.
In the coastal town of La Rochelle, Hollande's former partner and mother of his four children, Segolene Royal, was defeated by a dissident candidate who was expelled from the Socialist Party for running against her.
Royal, a presidential candidate in 2007, received Hollande's support, prompting the president's current partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, to post a tweet last week supporting Royal's dissident rival. Outrage ensued over what was characterized as a fit of jealousy from the First Girlfriend.
Sarkozy's UMP party is expected to implode into internecine squabbling over who will now lead it and challenge the Socialists in 2017.
Willsher is a special correspondent.