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Chirac Wins Overwhelming Parliamentary Majority

French voters have given conservative President Jacques Chirac an overwhelming parliamentary majority that allows him to set the national agenda, after five years of power-sharing with the Socialist-led French left. Despite the victory, the president and his allies have little time to deliver on the promises they made during the campaign to crack down on crime, cut taxes and reform labor laws and pension systems.

Only two months ago, Jacques Chirac faced an uncertain future. But now, he has become one of the most powerful presidents in modern French history, at least on paper.

After two rounds of balloting for the presidency and two more for the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, over the past eight weeks, the voters not only re-elected Mr. Chirac but also gave him nearly 70 per cent of the seats in the assembly. He already had a majority in the Senate.

Mr. Chirac, who only garnered 20 per cent in the first round of the presidential election, was helped in that contest by the specter of far rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen, whom he thrashed in a run-off last month after French voters of all political shades rallied to his support.

Now he has obtained the majority he needs in parliament to push his programs through, and analysts say that is due more to voter rejection of the power-sharing arrangement with the left, that often paralyzed policy-making, than faith in the president's conservative platform.

Philippe Moreau Desfarges, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations, says that after five years of being what he describes as the arbiter of French politics, Mr. Chirac now has a free hand to shape France's future. "Mr. Chirac can do what he wants," he said. "He's really the master of the game. He's no more the arbiter, as he has been for five years. Now he's really becoming the man who is responsible for France's future. It means that he can almost do what he wants."

With the left holding just over 30 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly and the far right holding none at all, some analysts say the voters have given Mr. Chirac a clear message: get on with the business of governing the country.

After winning re-election last month, the president shrewdly chose as his prime minister a virtual political unknown from the provinces with few ties to the Parisian political elite. Jean-Pierre Raffarin has since won wide popular support with his call for government to listen to the voters, a message he reiterated Sunday night in claiming victory for the conservatives in the legislative elections.

He says that the right has heard the message of the French people and knows it has a duty not to disappoint them. He says his government will work to improve the lives of the French people.

The number one issue Mr. Raffarin and his government must address is crime. Bruno Jeanbart, of the CSA polling firm, says one reason voters gave the right a majority is that they trust it to take tough action to combat skyrocketing crime rates. "Society is getting more and more dangerous, more and more violent," he said. "And they [the people] try to find answers to that, and they think that maybe the right is in a better place to find the solutions."

But beyond fighting crime, what does Mr. Chirac propose to do with his new majority? Political analyst Florence Faucher, of the Center for the Study of French Political Life, says his plan to lower taxes will go over well but some of the economic and social reforms he is proposing may not. "One of the immediate measures the government will take is lowering the tax by five percent for everybody, and also they have plans to lower taxes for companies," said Ms. Faucher. "The other very important reform which they have on their plate is reform of the welfare system, reform of financing health and pensions, and this is where most of the problems may lie."

Ms. Faucher says Mr. Chirac will face strong resistance from labor unions and interest groups if he attempts major restructuring of France's generous state pension scheme. She recalls that the president had a legislative majority five years ago, too, but that after a series of street protests over his austerity program, he miscalculated by calling early elections, which were won by the Socialists, forcing him to share power with the left.

Indeed, transportation unions have already announced a series of strikes in the days ahead to demand improved working conditions. They will provide Mr. Raffarin's new government with its first major test.

And though Mr. Chirac may have a big majority in parliament, it is not certain whether he has that big of a mandate. 39 per cent of the voters stayed away from the polls Sunday, the lowest turnout in the history of France's Fifth Republic.