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French Begin Choosing Legislature - 2002-06-08


French voters head to the polls Sunday in the first round of elections to fill the lower house of parliament.

The center-right coalition of newly re-elected President Jacques Chirac is expected to outpoll the leftist opposition and score a solid majority of the 577 seats in the two rounds of voting, which wrap up June 16. The leftists held a majority in the previous parliament, leading to an unweildy power-sharing arrangement with Mr. Chirac.

Center-right Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, appointed last month after Mr. Chirac's re-election, says his coalition needs a majority to push its policies through parliament.

Many analysts says voter apathy could once again favor the extreme-right National Front party, which they say could poll as high as 13 percent nationwide. They say many National Front candidates could find themselves in three-candidate runoffs next week, making the results of several races hard to predict.

The National Front's leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, shocked France and the world last month by qualifying for the presidential election runoff against Mr. Chirac on the strength of a law-and-order and anti-immigration campaign.

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