France goes to polls as far right eyes historic win

By AFP   June 30, 2024 | 12:46 am PT
Voting got underway in France's overseas territories Saturday in high-stakes snap parliamentary elections that could see the far-right party of Marine Le Pen take power for the first time.
French former president Nicolas Sarkozy (C) and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (2ndL) leave after voting for the first round of parliamentary elections in Paris, on June 30, 2024. Photo by AFP

French former president Nicolas Sarkozy (C) and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (2ndL) leave after voting for the first round of parliamentary elections in Paris, on June 30, 2024. Photo by AFP

Residents of the tiny French archipelago of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Canada, were the first to cast their ballots in the first round of the election.

France's islands in the Caribbean and the South American territory of French Guiana also voted on Saturday.

And polling stations in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia, hit by deadly riots last month, opened at 10:00 pm Paris time (2000 GMT). Voting in mainland France starts on Sunday.

Support for the anti-immigration and eurosceptic National Rally (RN) party has surged despite President Emmanuel Macron's pledges to prevent its ascent.

Most polls put the National Rally on course to win the largest number of seats in the 577-member National Assembly, parliament's lower house. But it remains unclear if the party will secure an outright majority.

A high turnout is predicted and the 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 Macron's centrist camp.

Campaigning ended at Friday midnight. Candidates cannot speak publicly -- nor can any polls be published -- until Sunday evening when voting has finished.

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.

The shape of the new parliament will become clear after the second round of voting on July 7.

Political 'impasse'

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.

Separately, tens thousands of people joined an LGBTQ Pride march in Paris, with some carrying placards targeting the far-right.

"I think it's even more important right now to fight against hatred in general, in all its forms," said 19-year-old student Themis Hallin-Mallet.

Once the first-round results are in, Macron plans to convene a government meeting to decide how to response to the situation, 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 alike 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%, 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.

'Victory is within grasp'

Many observers have noted 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".

The French president 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.

Support for Macron's centrist camp appears to have collapsed, while left-wing parties put their bickering aside to form the New Popular Front, 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 paid 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 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.

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.

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