Four highlights from France's snap election

France begins a new week of frenetic election campaigning on Monday, a day after the far-right National Rally party dominated the first round of legislative elections that attracted an unusually high turnout and dealt a major blow to President Emmanuel Macron.

Voters are being asked to choose their representatives in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lowest and most important house of the country's Parliament. They will return to the polls on July 7 for the second round of voting.

If a new majority of anti-Macron MPs takes office, he will be forced to appoint a political opponent as prime minister, radically changing France’s domestic politics and confusing its foreign policy. This will be especially true if he is forced to govern alongside Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old president of the National Rally.

If no clear majority emerges, the country could be headed for months of political stalemate or turmoil. Mr Macron, who has ruled out resigning, cannot call new legislative elections for another year.

As projections for the first round of voting arrived on Sunday, the nationalist, anti-immigrant Raduno Nazionale party was leading the national legislative elections for the first time in its history, with around 34% of the vote. The New Popular Front, a broad alliance of left-wing parties, got about 29%; Macron's centrist Renaissance party and its allies won about 22%; and traditional conservatives only got about 10%.

Here are four insights from the first round to help make sense of the election so far.

French legislative elections normally take place a few weeks after the presidential race and usually favor the party that won the presidency. That makes legislative votes less likely to appeal to voters, many of whom feel as if the outcome is preordained.

But this vote—a snap election unexpectedly called by Macron—was different. Turnout on Sunday was more than 65%, much higher than the 47.5% recorded in the first round of the last parliamentary elections, in 2022.

The jump reflects strong interest in a high-stakes race and a belief among voters that their vote could radically change the course of Mr Macron's presidency.

To win an absolute majority, a party needs 289 seats, and France's leading polling firms have released conservative projections suggesting the National Rally could win between 240 and 310 in the next round of voting.

The New Popular Front alliance, they say, could win between 150 and 200 seats, while Macron's Renaissance party and its allies could win between 70 and 120.

But using the results of the first round to predict the outcome of the second round has always been complicated by the nature of the French electoral system. Legislative elections are, in essence, 577 separate races.

Under certain conditions, a candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round wins hands down. On Sunday, polling institutes predicted that at least 60 candidates had been directly elected that way.

But most seats are only awarded after a runoff between the two candidates who received the most votes.

Pollsters predicted that the National Rally and its allies would get to at least 390 run-offs, the New Popular Front to at least 370 and Macron's centrist coalition to at least 290.

A lot can happen between the two rounds.

To further complicate matters, runoffs in some districts can feature three or even four candidates if they manage to get enough votes. Usually, this is rare. But on Sunday, due to the turnout gap, that was not the case.

In 2022, there were only eight three-way races. This time, pollsters predicted there would be more than 200.

Many parties, especially on the left, said they would withdraw a third-place candidate to prevent the far right from winning. But some confusion remained Sunday evening.

Some of Macron's allies, for example, have suggested that his party or its allies should not withdraw a candidate in cases where doing so would help a candidate from the far-left party France Unbowed, which he was accused of anti-Semitism. Others said the far right had to be stopped at all costs.

Two outcomes seem most likely.

Only the National Rally seems capable of securing enough seats to secure an absolute majority. If it does, Macron will have no choice but to appoint Bardella as prime minister. He would then form a cabinet and control domestic politics.

In such scenarios, presidents have traditionally maintained control over foreign policy and defense matters, but the Constitution does not always offer clear guidelines.

That would put a far-right, anti-immigration, Eurosceptic party in government of a country that has been at the heart of the European project. Mr Bardella could clash with Mr Macron over issues such as France’s contribution to the European Union budget or support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.

Several thousand demonstrators, mostly left-wing, gathered in central Paris on Sunday evening to protest against the National Rally.

If the National Rally fails to secure an absolute majority—Bardella has said he would not govern without it—Macron could find himself facing an unmanageable lower house, with two large blocs on the right and left opposing him. His very small centrist coalition, squeezed between the extremes, would be reduced to relative impotence.

The government has already announced it will suspend plans to tighten unemployment benefit rules that had angered unions. Gabriel Attal, Mr Macron's prime minister, virtually admitted in a speech that his party would soon lose influence.

“What is at stake in this second round is to deprive the far right of an absolute majority,” he said. His party's goal, he said, is to have “enough weight” to work with other parties.

It is not yet clear who Macron might appoint as prime minister if parliament remains suspended.

The president could try to build a coalition, but France is not used to doing that, unlike Germany. It is also not used to the idea of ​​a caretaker government that handles the day-to-day running of the country until a political breakthrough occurs, as happened in Belgium.

The National Rally’s victory was yet another sign that the party’s years-long journey from the margins of French politics to the gilded halls of the French Republic is nearly complete. It nearly doubled its vote share from 2022, when it won 18.68% of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections.

A study released Sunday made clear how much the party has expanded its voter base.

The Ipsos pollster's study, conducted on a representative sample of 10,000 registered voters before the election, found that National Rally's electorate had “grown and diversified”.

According to an analysis by the polling institute, the party continues to perform best among the working class, highlighting that it won 57 percent of the blue-collar vote.

But its voter base has “significantly broadened” beyond these categories, Ipsos said, noting that the party increased its scores by 15 to 20 percentage points among pensioners, women, people under 35, voters with higher incomes and inhabitants of large cities.

“In the end, the Rassemblement National vote spread,” the pollster said, “creating an electorate that was more homogeneous than before and quite in tune with the French population as a whole.”

Segolene Le Stradic contributed reporting from Hénin-Beaumont, France.

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