World

France heading to polls for key elections

Sunday’s vote could see a historic far-right win or a hung parliament.

A woman holds her child outside a voting station in Strasbourg, eastern France (Jean-Francois Badias/AP)
A woman holds her child outside a voting station in Strasbourg, eastern France (Jean-Francois Badias/AP) (Jean-Francois Badias/AP)

France is heading to the polls on Sunday in pivotal runoff elections which could hand a historic victory to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and its inward-looking, anti-immigrant vision.

Sunday’s snap elections, which could also produce a hung parliament and years of political deadlock, have potential impact on the war in Ukraine, global diplomacy and Europe’s economic stability.

They are almost certain to undercut President Emmanuel Macron for the remaining three years of his presidency.

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

Far-right National Rally party president Jordan Bardella, right, leaves with far-right leader Marine Le Pen after a press conference (AP)
Far-right National Rally party president Jordan Bardella, right, leaves with far-right leader Marine Le Pen after a press conference (AP) (Christophe Ena/AP)

The heightened tensions come while France is preparing to host the Olympic Games and the Tour de France is racing around the country alongside the Olympic torch.

Meanwhile, 49 million voters are in the midst of the country’s most important elections in decades.

France could have its first far-right government since the Nazi occupation in the Second World War 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 centre-left, hard-left and Green parties, and Macron’s centrist alliance.

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.

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

French President Emmanuel Macron (AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron (AP) (Michel Euler/AP)

Another possibility is that no party has a majority, resulting in a hung parliament. That could prompt Mr Macron to pursue coalition negotiations with the centre-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 second largest economy to make bold decisions on arming Ukraine, reforming labour laws or reducing its huge deficit.

Financial markets have been jittery since Mr 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.

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.

Ms 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.

The second round of voting began on Saturday in France’s overseas territories from the South Pacific to the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and North Atlantic.

The elections wrap up on Sunday at 8pm local time in mainland France. Initial polling projections are expected on Sunday night with early official results expected late on Sunday and early on Monday.

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