France is voting in key elections that could see a historic far-right win or a hung parliament

Voting has begun in mainland France on Sunday in pivotal runoff elections that could hand a historic victory to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and its inward-looking, anti-immigrant vision — or produce a hung parliament and years of political deadlock.

French President Emmanuel Macron took a huge gamble in dissolving parliament and calling for the elections after his centrists were trounced in European elections on June 9.

The snap elections in this nuclear-armed nation will influence the war in Ukraine, global diplomacy and Europe’s economic stability, and they’re almost certain to undercut President Emmanuel Macron for the remaining three years of his presidency.

The first round on June 30 saw the largest gains ever for the anti-immigration, nationalist National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen.

A bit over 49 million people are registered to vote in the elections, which will determine which party controls the 577-member National Assembly, France’s influential lower house of parliament, and who will be prime minister. If support is further eroded for Macron’s weak centrist majority, he will be forced to share power with parties opposed to most of his pro-business, pro-European Union policies.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal cast his ballot in the Paris suburb of Vanves Sunday morning.

Le Pen is not voting, because her district in northern France is not holding a second round after she won the seat outright last week. Across France, 76 other candidates secured seats in the first round, including 39 from her National Rally and 32 from the leftist New Popular Front alliance. Two candidates from Macron’s centrists list also won their seats in the first round.

Racism and antisemitism have marred the electoral campaign, along with Russian cybercampaigns, and more than 50 candidates reported being physically attacked — highly unusual for France. The government is deploying 30,000 police on voting day.

The heightened tensions come while France is celebrating a very special summer: Paris is about to host exceptionally ambitious Olympic Games, the national soccer team reached the semifinal of the Euro 2024 championship, and the Tour de France is racing around the country alongside the Olympic torch.

The elections wrap up Sunday at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) in mainland France and on the island of Corsica. Initial polling projections are expected Sunday night, with early official results expected late Sunday and early Monday.

Voters residing in the Americas and in France’s overseas territories of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana and French Polynesia voted on Saturday.

The elections could leave France with its first far-right government since the Nazi occupation in World War II if the National Rally wins an absolute majority and its 28-year-old leader Jordan Bardella becomes prime minister. The party came out on top in the previous week’s first-round voting, followed by a coalition of center-left, hard-left and Green parties, and Macron’s centrist alliance.

But the outcome remains highly uncertain. Polls between the two rounds suggest that the National Rally may win the most seats in the 577-seat National Assembly but fall short of the 289 seats needed for a majority. That would still make history, if a party with historic links to xenophobia and downplaying the Holocaust, and long seen as a pariah, becomes France’s biggest political force.

If it wins the majority, Macron would be forced to share power in an awkward arrangement known in France as “cohabitation.”

Another possibility is that no party has a majority, resulting in a hung parliament. That could prompt Macron to pursue coalition negotiations with the center-left or name a technocratic government with no political affiliations.

Both would be unprecedented for modern France, and make it more difficult for the European Union’s No. 2 economy to make bold decisions on arming Ukraine, reforming labor laws or reducing its huge deficit. Financial markets have been jittery since Macron surprised even his closest allies in June by announcing snap elections after the National Rally won the most seats for France in European Parliament elections.

Regardless of what happens, Macron said he won’t step down and will stay president until his term ends in 2027.

Many French voters, especially in small towns and rural areas, are frustrated with low incomes and a Paris political leadership seen as elitist and unconcerned with workers’ day-to-day struggles. National Rally has connected with those voters, often by blaming immigration for France’s problems, and has built up broad and deep support over the past decade.

Le Pen has softened many of the party’s positions — she no longer calls for quitting NATO and the EU — to make it more electable. But the party’s core far-right values remain. It wants a referendum on whether being born in France is enough to merit citizenship, to curb rights of dual citizens, and give police more freedom to use weapons.

Source: AP

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