French election: Voters drift to the left

French President Francois Hollande
Image caption Francois Hollande's Socialist Party recorded 29% of the parliamentary election's first-round votes

This was not the so-called Pink Surge that some had predicted, but it was a night in which the new President Francois Hollande consolidated his grip on power.

There is of course a decisive second-round vote still to come next week which makes the final tally hard to predict, but interior ministry figures show that his Socialist Party took 29%, two points more than the conservative UMP party of Nicolas Sarkozy.

That support, alongside that of the Greens and their left-wing allies, gives the Socialists around 46%, well ahead of the 34% for the UMP and its conservative allies.

It is not the overwhelming triumph the president may have hoped for - the high abstention rate put paid to that - but senior figures are not complaining.

The Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry said French voters had "expressed their support for change" and their "wish to amplify" Mr Hollande's victory in the presidential election.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said change was beginning, but warned: "Everything still hinges on next Sunday."

'Not over yet'

Should they confirm their strong showing, then Mr Hollande will have carte blanche to push through what he likes.

He set out a 60-point programme in the presidential campaign designed to boost employment, increase the number of teaching assistants and roll back some of the pension reforms initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy.

But there is still vagueness about the spending cuts that will be required.

Image caption Socialist Party supporters had shown support for change, said party chief Martine Aubry

The UMP is currently without a leader - they will not choose Mr Sarkozy's replacement until the party congress in November.

They have been punished at the polls for the high rate of unemployment in France, which has now reached 10%.

Jean-Francois Cope, the UMP party chief who hopes to be Mr Sarkozy's successor said: "The game is not over yet."

He escaped a dangerous three-way run-off that would have pitted him against a far right National Front candidate.

But there is a danger that UMP supporters will stay away from the polls next week in light of last night's results, and in many constituencies around the country they will face a three way run-off against National Front candidates; the vote will be split on the right handing a distinct advantage to the Socialists.

The far right took 14% of the vote in the first round; down on Marine Le Pen's 18% in the presidential election but up from 4% in 2007.

Ms Le Pen said the result meant her party, which wants to ditch the euro and battles against what she calls the Islamisation of France, is now cemented as France's third political power.

She said: "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 the third political force."

A clear run

There is no denying they are a force and some UMP supporters are calling for an alliance to see off the Socialist challenge.

It was a successful night for Ms Le Pen on a personal level.

Image caption The Front National's Marine Le Pen saw off a challenge from the Front De Gauche in Henin-Beaumont

In the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, where she is standing, she had faced a challenge from the firebrand leader of the Left Front, Jean-Luc Melenchon.

In the end he finished third and last night retired from the race to allow the Socialist candidate a clear run.

Already the campaigning has begun for the second round.

The FN are still not guaranteed a seat, although they hope for two, possibly three.

The Socialists are taking nothing for granted and will fight to ensure they finish as the first party in France.

While it was a difficult night for the UMP, there is very little light between the two mainstream parties, which perhaps suggests the middle classes are yet to be convinced by Francois Hollande's growth strategies.

The president has pledged to reduce France's budget deficit to 3% next year and that will require cuts.

The fear among middle-class voters is that they will suffer the pain.

Nonetheless, the drift is to the left and Mr Hollande's growth strategy is all but guaranteed - in contrast to the more austere policies followed by other right wing governments in France.

They will look on with interest, perhaps nervously, at whether the change in direction proves a success.