French President Francois Hollande, right, walks in Tulle, central France on Sunday. Image Credit: AP

Paris: President Francois Hollande's Socialists and their allies were on track Monday to win a strong parliamentary majority after a first-round election that cemented France’s swing to the left.

A week ahead of a crucial run-off vote, the Socialists and other left-wing parties won about 46 per cent in Sunday’s first round ahead of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party and its allies with 34 per cent, official results showed.

With pollsters predicting the Socialists may win a majority of the National Assembly’s 577 seats on their own, party officials on Monday urged voters to keep up the momentum in next Sunday’s second round.

“The essential thing is that the president have a strong majority,” Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry told France Inter radio.

Hollande defeated Sarkozy in last month’s presidential election and now wants voters to give him a strong mandate to enact left-wing reforms as France battles Europe’s crippling debt crisis, rising joblessness and a stagnant economy.

However, after a high turnout in the presidential election, voters were less enthusiastic on Sunday with turnout at only 57 per cent, a record low for a first round.

If the second round confirms Sunday's results, it will increase Hollande’s status in Europe as champion of the movement away from the German-led fixation on austerity towards growth, and give him a confidence boost in upcoming talks with fellow EU leaders on the Eurozone crisis.

Surge in support

In a result partly driven by anti-EU feelings, Sunday’s vote also saw a surge in support for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, which wants to ditch the euro and battle against what she calls the “Islamisation” of France.

Pollsters say Sunday’s results indicate the Socialists will take between 283 and 329 seats in the run-off vote, likely enough to secure the 289 seats they need to form a majority on their own.

With the 10 to 15 seats expected to go to the Greens, who are close allies of the Socialists and already in government, Hollande is all but certain to enjoy a majority without needing to turn to the Communist-backed Left Front for support.

Left-wing daily Liberation described the result as a “solid success” for Hollande, adding: “The left was able to maintain its momentum from the presidential election.”

With the Socialists already in control of the upper house Senate and many regional governments, UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope urged voters to balance their power with a swing to the right in the second round.

“All the French men and women who do not want the left to have total power for the next five years must take that decision now,” he said.

He also reached out to the National Front’s voters, urging them to switch from the far-right to the UMP to keep the Socialists from victory.

“I am telling the FN’s voters: be careful when you vote for the FN in the second round, you risk putting the left in power,” Cope said, though he rejected the idea of the UMP forming a second-round alliance with the FN.

The National Front took 13.6 per cent of the vote on Sunday, far above the four per cent it achieved in the last parliamentary election in 2007.

“Given the abstention rate and a profoundly anti-democratic electoral system that has for 25 years deprived millions of voters of MPs, we confirm our position tonight as France's third political force,” Le Pen said after the vote.

Still, under France’s first-past-the-post system the result would at best give the FN only three parliamentary seats and possibly none at all.

Personal defeat

The Left Front, headed by firebrand anti-capitalist Jean-Luc Melenchon, won just 6.9 per cent of the vote after seeing a surge in support during the presidential campaign.

The night also marked a personal defeat for Melenchon, who bowed out of the second round after losing to Le Pen in a rundown former mining constituency near the northern city of Lille.

Longtime centrist leader Francois Bayrou also appeared set to lose his seat in the southwest after his left- and right-wing rivals beat him in the first round.

Hollande’s interim government has taken a series of popular steps in the wake of his presidential victory in the May 6 run-off.

He has cut ministers’ salaries by 30 per cent, vowed to reduce executive pay at state-owned companies and lowered the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.

The UMP has hit back with warnings that the Socialists are preparing huge tax hikes to pay for what the right says is a fiscally irresponsible spending programme.

More than 6,500 candidates competed in Sunday’s vote. In races where no candidate won more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, any contender who scored more than 12.5 per cent stays in the race for the second round.