Paris : French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and its allies scored a resounding victory in first round of the general elections.
Estimates by several institutes, based on a partial vote count, show the UMP and its right-wing allies gaining 45.6 to 46.4 percent of the vote Sunday, putting it in a position to grab an overwhelming majority of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, in the June 17 second round.
According to the same estimates, the opposition Socialist Party and its left-wing allies looked set to take about 36 percent of the vote, while the centrist Democratic Movement of Francois Bayrou was seen to draw only 7.3 percent.
In terms of seats, forecasts based on the first round show the UMP and allied parties poised next week to win 383 to 501 of the 577 National Assembly seats.
Estimates give the opposition Socialist Party and its allies only 69 to 185 seats in the runoffs, with the Democratic Movement credited with 1 to 4 seats.
If the estimates are confirmed, the election will provide Sarkozy with a free hand to carry out his wide-ranging reforms.
The results can be credited largely to Sarkozy's popularity, as polls show the new president receiving approval ratings of 65 percent after several weeks in office.
In addition, French media coverage of his appearance at last week's G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, was overwhelmingly positive, which only added to his stature.
Unless the Socialists are able to mobilize enough voters next week to avoid a defeat of landslide proportions, they will be forced to rethink their strategies and policies and to consider, above all, a change in leadership.
The vote was marked by record low turnout, with an estimated 40 percent of France's 44.5 million registered voters staying away from the polls.
On May 6, nearly 85 percent of France's registered voters took part in the second round of the presidential election, in which Sarkozy won a five-year term.
The high rate of abstentions almost certainly hurt the left-wing parties the most, as many voters apparently perceived that the game was up, based on pre-election polls.
Socialist Party leaders, including defeated presidential candidate Segolene Royal, had campaigned on a single issue of preventing Sarkozy from gaining too much power.
Immediately after the estimates were announced, Socialist leaders persisted in this strategy, appealing to their electorate to come out in force for the second round.
Royal told her supporters that "France needs" the people who did not vote to ensure "a balance of power" in the country.
"There was a record rate of abstentions. This means something is wrong," she said.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the results were a confirmation that the French "want a new direction" and "a break with the despair of the past."
The vote was a disaster for France's small and extremist parties, with the Communists and the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen both credited with about five percent of the vote, and the Green Party polling only 2.8 percent.
After Le Pen's dismal showing in the presidential election, where he received only slightly more than 10 per cent of the vote, this latest setback could spell the political end for the 78-year-old right-wing extremist.