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Sarkozy's party captures majority

But Socialists gain seats in French runoffs

PARIS -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party won a majority in parliamentary runoff elections yesterday , but Socialists -- contrary to all poll predictions -- gained more seats than they had held in the previous assembly, foreshadowing tough battles ahead for the new government's proposals.

Leftist candidates appeared to be boosted by public fear over Sarkozy's frenzied reform efforts, including an announcement last week that the government planned to raise sales taxes, and by a low turnout among Sarkozy voters expecting a runaway sweep of the National Assembly.

Exit poll results showed the ruling Union for a Popular Movement and its allies on the right with 345 of the 577 parliamentary seats; the Socialist and leftist parties with 228; and the centrist MoDem party with four seats. The right-wing parties lost seats from the previous Parliament, though they retained their majority.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon, in a televised address minutes after the polls closed last night, conceded the results were an indication of wariness among many voters and said, "Their disappointment obliges us to listen to what they have to say."

But Fillon also said the new government's majority in the National Assembly "validates our plan to modernize France," adding, "We will renovate our country, experiment with new ideas, enhance work and merit, encourage talent, and innovation and get rid of the defeatism that has suffocated the Republic."

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande said: "By voting this way, our fellow citizens intended to install a parliamentary counterweight to the new power. The Socialist Party has recovered beyond our wildest expectations."

While the ruling party has the majority it needs to pass bills in the Parliament, the strong showing of the Socialists will force Sarkozy to court the left and meet many of its voters' concerns.

"There is a clear difference with having a majority in Parliament and a majority on the street," said Jerome Fourquet, a director of the IFOP polling agency. "It's not easy to reform France; the right has a majority, but they know they need to be cautious if they don't want to create social unrest."

The election day ended with embarrassing news for Sarkozy and the Union for a Popular Movement . Alain Juppe, 61, a former prime minister whom Sarkozy appointed environment minister and made the second-highest ranking member of his Cabinet, resigned yesterday because he lost his race for Parliament. Sarkozy's Cabinet ministers were appointed on the condition that they win their local legislative races. Juppe lost his Bordeaux race to Socialist Michele Delaunay by two percentage points.

Juppe had been in political exile after his conviction in a political financial scandal. Sarkozy temporarily resuscitated his career with the Cabinet appointment.

Sarkozy has said he will launch his program for reinvigorating France's floundering economy and restoring national self-esteem in a special parliamentary session beginning June 26. He has vowed to take on labor unions, universities, and the 35-hour workweek .