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Conservative Coalition Wins Big in French Parliamentary Elections - 2002-06-16

French President Jacques Chirac's conservative coalition has won a resounding victory in the second round of parliamentary elections.

As expected, the center-right scooped up about 400 of the 577 National Assembly seats, according to initial results announced shortly after the last voting booths closed at 8:00 p.m. local time. Most of the seats went to President Jacques Chirac's new Union for the Presidential Majority, giving the center-right an absolute majority in parliament.

The abstention rate on this rare sunny day was estimated as high as 38 percent, a possible record high in modern France.

The leftist coalition, which swept the 1997 legislative elections, scored only about 187-seats, with most going to the Socialist Party. But the beleaguered Communist Party, which was predicted to emerge with few seats, rallied and landed 25.

As in the 1997 elections, the far-right National Front Party of Jean-Marie Le Pen did not win a single seat in the National Assembly. The result marks a disappointing setback for Mr. Le Pen, who shocked France by placing second in the first round of presidential elections, in April. Mr. Chirac soundly defeated Mr. Le Pen in last month's runoff.

The second round results mark yet another victory for center-right Mr. Chirac, who spent much of his first term at odds with a leftist prime minister and parliament.

Critics say he did little of significance during his first term as president. Now he has five years to prove himself.

Mr. Chirac moved quickly last month to appoint an interim prime minister, a little known local politician called Jean-Pierre Raffarin. But Mr. Raffarin has already won respect, and analysts believe he will remain in his job.

The interim prime minister said the center-right had heard the message sent by French voters and had moved to improve and simplify their lives.

According to the French press, Mr. Raffarin is expected to announce changes in his month-old cabinet early this week.

Analysts widely expect the new French European Affairs Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres to be replaced. Mr. de Vabres has been implicated in an illegal party financing scandal.

Mr. Raffarin is also expected to lay out the goals for his new government during a speech to the nation, in early July.

Meanwhile, the new parliament is expected to meet in an extraordinary, month-long summer session starting July 2.