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Socialists secure big gains in France

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French President Francois Hollande's anti-austerity front has received a boost as his Socialist Party romped to victory in the country's parliamentary elections.

The Socialists won between 308 and 320 seats in the 577-member National Assembly, clearing the way for Hollande to implement his centre-left programme without having to haggle with other leftist factions or the opposition.

Never in the history of the 54-year-old Fifth Republic has a party had so much power. Sunday's win puts the Socialists in control of both houses of parliament (the National Assembly and Senate) for the first time. They also control most regions and large cities.

But the real challenge for Hollande lies ahead, when he will have to juggle his commitment to slash the budget deficit without reneging on his promise for greater social justice.

In the run-up to the parliamentary election, Hollande studiously avoided the looming question of spending cuts. But, with the election out of the way, the battle against France's spending bulge is set to begin.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, is next month expected to unveil a revision to the 2012 budget aimed at plugging a revenue shortfall of about 10 billion euros ($12.7 billion) caused by slowing growth and rising unemployment.

While the bulk of this year's shortfall is expected to come from tax increases, the 2013 budget that will be presented in parliament in the autumn is expected to include cuts to public spending.

By winning an outright majority in the National Assembly, the government will be able to push through the cuts without having to negotiate for the support of the Communist-backed Left Front.

'Third political force'

The far-right National Front was set to return to parliament for the first time since 1998 after winning two seats in the south of the country, although party leader Marine Le Pen lost her own bid for a seat.

Le Pen, who has said her success in the first-round parliamentary vote made her party France's "third political force", demanded a recount after she was narrowly defeated by a Socialist in a northern former mining constituency.

But Le Pen nevertheless rejoiced in the overall success of her party, whose image she has fought to soften from the days of her father Jean-Marie's provocative outbursts.

"This is an enormous success," Marine Le Pen said in Henin-Beaumont.

"We only have reasons to be happy to have achieved spectacular results in dozens of constituencies in the second round."

Le Pen's niece, 22-year-old Marion Marechal-Le Pen, won her seat in the southern Vaucluse region and the FN won another seat in the nearby Gard constituency.

Sarkozy's UMP and its allies won 229 seats, the Socialist-allied Greens 17 seats and the far-left Left Front 10, according to final results released by the interior ministry.

The media spotlight was also focused on Segolene Royal, Hollande's former partner and mother of their four children, who conceded defeat in her battle after a dissident Socialist candidate refused to stand down.

Royal, whose campaign was shaken when Hollande's current partner Valerie Trierweiler tweeted her support for dissident Olivier Falorni, slammed what she called a "political betrayal".

"I ran a tough but straight and loyal campaign," she said in bitter but brief remarks in La Rochelle in western France.


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