High-stakes French election attracts strong turnout – what to watch

French voters went to the polls on Sunday for the first round of snap legislative elections that President Emmanuel Macron unexpectedly called this month, a gamble that has thrown the country into deep uncertainty about its future.

As of 5 p.m. local time on Sunday, the turnout was 59.39 percent, the Interior Ministry said. That's much higher than in the previous legislative election in 2022, when turnout over the same period was just 39.42 percent, demonstrating intense interest in a vote that will determine the future of Mr Macron's second term.

Voters are choosing their 577 representatives in the National Assembly, the country’s lower and highest house of parliament. A new majority of lawmakers opposed to Mr Macron would force him to appoint a political opponent as prime minister, radically changing France’s domestic politics and muddling its foreign policy.

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

France's anti-immigration nationalist Rassemblement National party is expected to dominate the race. In second place could be a broad alliance of left-wing parties. Macron's centrist Renaissance party and its allies are expected to lose many seats.

Most polling stations will close at 6:00 PM local time on Sunday, or until 8:00 PM in larger cities. Nationwide vote projections from polling institutes, based on preliminary results, are expected shortly after 8:00 PM and are generally reliable. Official results, released by the Interior Ministry, will arrive overnight.

Here's what to expect.

France's 577 electoral districts, one for each seat, cover the mainland, overseas departments and territories, and French citizens living abroad. In each district, the seat is awarded to the candidate who obtains the most votes.

Any number of candidates can compete in the first round in each district, but there are specific thresholds to reach the second round, which will be held a week later, on July 7.

In most cases, the second round features the two candidates with the most votes, and whoever gets the most votes in that runoff wins the race. But there are exceptions.

A candidate who receives more than 50% of the votes in the first round wins outright, as long as those votes represent at least a quarter of the registered voters in that district. And in some constituencies the run-off could see three or even four candidates if they manage to obtain a number of votes equal to at least 12.5% ​​of registered voters.

Both scenarios have been rare in past years, but are more likely if voter abstention is low, as expected Sunday. Most polling institutes expect the voter participation rate to exceed 60% in the first round, up from 47.5% in 2022.

French legislative elections are typically held a few weeks after the presidential race and usually favor the party that just won the presidency, making the election less likely to attract voters who believe the outcome is preordained.

But this time the stakes are much higher.

The goal of each party and its allies is to win enough seats to form a functioning majority. If none of them succeed, France could face months of political turmoil or stalemate.

But if control of the National Assembly passed to Mr. Macron's opposition, he would be forced to appoint a prime minister and cabinet from a different political party, which would then control domestic politics. Presidents traditionally maintain control over foreign policy and defense matters in such scenarios, but the Constitution does not always offer clear guidelines.

The National Rally has a comfortable lead in recent polls, with support from around 36% of voters. After decades on the fringes, the anti-immigration, eurosceptic far-right has never been closer to governing France, which would be a surprising development in a country that has been at the heart of the European project. The National Rally prime minister could clash with Macron over issues such as France's contribution to the European Union budget or support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

The alliance of Socialists, Greens, Communists and the far-left France Unbowed party is in second place in the polls, with around 29 percent support, and believes it has a chance of overtaking the far right and forming its own government. The alliance wants to reverse some of the actions taken by Macron's government over the past seven years, such as raising the retirement age. It also wants to roll back corporate tax cuts and tax breaks for the wealthy to dramatically increase social spending and pass a big increase in the minimum wage.

For Macron’s centrist party and its allies, the battle is a tough one. Polls put them in third place, with about 20%, and they are widely expected to lose many of the 250 seats they hold. Some of Macron’s political allies are running — the leaders of other centrist parties, some of his own ministers, and even the prime minister — and defeat for any of them would be a blow.

In 2022, Mr Macron's centrist coalition and the left were neck and neck in the first round of voting, ahead of all other parties, with around a quarter of the votes each. A week later, both were still leading the race, but Mr. Macron's coalition won nearly 250 seats and the left won fewer than 150.

In other words, while the first round of voting is an indicator of what the final results might be, it is not a perfect predictor.

One way to analyze the first round is to look at voting trends nationwide: What percentage of the vote did each party get in the country? This is a good way to see whether polls have accurately predicted each party's overall popularity and to see which forces have the momentum going into the final week of campaigning.

But nationwide voting percentages hide the fact that France's legislative elections are, in essence, 577 separate races and that most seats are only filled after the second round.

Each party’s prospects depend on the number of runoffs their candidates face: the more runoffs, the better their party’s chances of coming out on top on July 7. The type of contests they will face will also become clearer.

And a lot happens between the two rounds. Voters whose favorite candidates don't make it to the runoff will either switch to another, or stay home.

Parties will issue local or national voting recommendations to try to influence the outcome. In the past, parties across the spectrum often appealed to their members to strategically vote against the far right, but that tactic has worn thin.

Candidates may decide to withdraw from a three- or four-way race if they fear splitting votes; several left-wing parties have already announced that they would encourage their candidates to do so.

There will also be another week of campaigning: more than enough time for gaffes, missteps or twists that could change the course of any race.

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