Tense France goes to polls as far-right scents power

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Voting got underway in France’s overseas territories on Saturday in high-stakes snap parliamentary elections, which could change the country’s trajectory and see the far-right party of Marine Le Pen take power in a historic first.

Residents of the tiny French archipelago of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, located off the coast of Canada, began casting their ballots in the first round of elections from 1000 GMT.

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They will be followed by voters in France’s islands in the Caribbean and the South American territory of French Guiana. Voting will later start in territories in the Pacific and then in the Indian Ocean before it gets underway on the mainland on Sunday.

Elections for the 577 seats in the lower house National Assembly are a two-round process. The shape of the new parliament will become clear after the second round a week later, on July 7.

With Russia’s war against Ukraine in its third year and energy and food prices soaring, support for the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic National Rally party has surged.

Most polls show that National Rally is on course to win the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house, although it remains unclear if the party will secure an outright majority.

A high turnout is predicted and final opinion polls have given the RN between 35 percent and 37 percent of the vote, against 27.5-29 percent for the left-wing New Popular Front alliance and 20-21 percent for President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist camp.

If the RN obtains an absolute majority, party chief Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s 28-year-old protege with no governing experience, could become prime minister in a tense “cohabitation” with Macron.

‘No precedent’

On Monday, Macron plans to convene a government meeting to decide the further course of action, government sources told AFP.

France is heading for a year of political chaos and confusion with a hung Assembly, said Mujtaba Rahman, Europe head at Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy.

“There is no precedent in recent French politics for such an impasse,” Rahman said.

Macron’s decision to call snap elections after the RN’s victory in European Parliament elections this month stunned friends and foes and sparked uncertainty in Europe’s second-biggest economy.

The Paris stock exchange suffered its biggest monthly decline in two years in June, dropping by 6.4 percent, according to figures released on Friday.

In an editorial, French daily Le Monde said it was time to mobilize against the far right.

“Yielding any power to it means nothing less than taking the risk of seeing everything that has been built and conquered over more than two and a half centuries gradually being undone,” it said.

Wielding mops and buckets, several activists of the Femen feminist collective dressed as cleaners on Saturday demonstrated bare-breasted at the Trocadero in Paris, chanting slogans against the extreme right.

‘Victory is within grasp’

Macron apparently hoped to catch political opponents off guard by presenting voters with a crucial choice about France’s future, but observers say he might have lost his gamble.

Many have pointed to a spike in hate speech, intolerance and racism during the charged campaign. A video of two RN supporters verbally assaulting a black woman has gone viral in recent days.

Macron has deplored “racism or anti-Semitism”.

Support for Macron’s centrist camp collapsed, while left-wing parties put their bickering aside to form the New Popular Front, in a nod to an alliance founded in 1936 to combat fascism.

Analysts say Le Pen’s years-long efforts to clean up the image of a party co-founded by a former Waffen SS member have been paying off. The party has promised to bolster purchasing power, curb immigration and boost law and order.

“Victory is within our grasp, so let’s seize this historic opportunity and get out and vote!” Le Pen wrote on X on Friday.

Under Macron, France has been one of Ukraine’s main Western backers since Russia invaded in 2022.

But Le Pen and Bardella have said they would scale down French support for Ukraine, by ruling out the deployment of ground troops and long-range missiles.

The party’s path to victory could be blocked if the left and center-right join forces against the RN in the second round.

A defiant Macron has stood by his decision to call the elections, while warning voters that a win by the far right or hard left could spark a “civil war.”

He has insisted he will serve out the remainder of his second term until 2027, no matter which party wins.

Some 49 million French are eligible to vote.

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