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Four Takeaways From France’s Snap Election

A new week of frenetic campaigning will start in France on Monday, a day after the far-right National Rally party dominated the first round of legislative elections that attracted an unusually high number of voters and dealt a stinging blow to President Emmanuel Macron.

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

If a new majority of lawmakers opposed to Mr. Macron is ushered in, he will be forced to appoint a political adversary as prime minister, dramatically shifting France’s domestic policy and muddling its foreign policy. That will be especially so 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 deadlock or turmoil. Mr. Macron, who has ruled out resigning, cannot call new legislative elections for another year.

On Sunday, as projections from the first round of voting rolled in, the nationalist, anti-immigrant National Rally party was in the lead in nationwide legislative election for the first time in its history, with about 34 percent of the vote. The New Popular Front, a broad alliance of left-wing parties, got about 29 percent; Mr. Macron’s centrist Renaissance party and its allies won about 22 percent; and mainstream conservatives got only about 10 percent.

Here are four takeaways from the first round to help make sense of the elections so far.

France’s legislative elections normally occur just weeks after the presidential race and usually favor the party that has won the presidency. That makes legislative votes less likely to draw in voters, many of whom feel as if the outcome is preordained.

But this vote — a snap election called unexpectedly by Mr. Macron — was different. The participation rate on Sunday was over 65 percent, far more than the 47.5 percent recorded in the first round of the last parliamentary elections, in 2022.

That jump reflected the intense interest in a high-stakes race and a belief among voters that their ballot could fundamentally alter the course of Mr. Macron’s presidency.

For an absolute majority, a party needs 289 seats, and France’s main polling institutes have released cautious projections suggesting that the National Rally could win between 240 and 310 in the next round of voting.

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

But using first round results to predict the second round outcome has always been tricky because of the nature of France’s electoral system. The 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 outright. On Sunday, polling institutes projected that at least 60 candidates had been directly elected that way.

But most seats are decided only after a second-round runoff between the top two vote getters.

Pollsters have projected that the National Rally and its allies made it into at least 390 runoffs, the New Popular Front at least 370, and that Mr. Macron’s centrist coalition at least 290.

Much can happen between the two rounds.

Complicating matters even further, the runoffs in some districts can feature three or even four candidates if they are able to get enough votes. Usually, this is rare. But on Sunday, because of the jump in participation, it was not.

In 2022, there were only eight three-way races. This time, polling institutes projected that there would be over 200.

Many parties — especially on the left — said they would pull out a third-place candidate to help prevent the far right from winning. But there remained some confusion Sunday night.

Some of Mr. Macron’s allies, for instance, suggested that his party or its allies should not withdraw a candidate in cases where it would help a candidate from the hard-left France Unbowed party, which has been accused of antisemitism. Others said the far right had to be stopped at all costs.

Two outcomes seem most likely.

Only the National Rally appears in a position to secure enough seats for an absolute majority. If it does, Mr. Macron will have no other choice than to appoint Mr. Bardella prime minister. He would then form a cabinet and control domestic policy.

Presidents have traditionally retained control over foreign policy and defense matters in such scenarios, but the Constitution does not always offer clear guidelines.

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

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

If the National Rally fails to secure an absolute majority — Mr. Bardella has said he would not govern without one — Mr. Macron could be facing an unmanageable lower house, with two big blocs on the right and left opposed to him. His much-reduced centrist coalition, squeezed between the extremes, would be reduced to relative powerlessness.

Already, the government has announced that it is suspending plans to tighten rules on unemployment benefits that had angered labor unions. Gabriel Attal, Mr. Macron’s prime minister, all but acknowledged in a speech that his party would soon have less clout.

“The stakes for this second round are to deprive the far right of an absolute majority,” he said. His party’s goal, he said, is to have “sufficient weight” to work with other parties.

Whom Mr. Macron might appoint as prime minister if there is a hung Parliament is still unclear.

The president could try to build a coalition, but France is not accustomed to doing so, unlike Germany. It is also not accustomed to the notion of a caretaker government that handles the day-to-day business of running the country until there is a political breakthrough, as has happened in Belgium.

The National Rally’s victory was yet another sign that the party’s yearslong journey from the fringes of French politics to the gilded halls of France’s Republic is all but complete. It nearly doubled its share of the vote from 2022, when it got 18.68 percent of the vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections.

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

The study by the Ipsos polling institute, conducted among a representative sample of 10,000 registered voters before the election, found that the National Rally electorate had “grown and diversified.”

The party still fares the best among the working-class, the polling institute said in an analysis, noting that it got 57 percent of the blue-collar vote.

But its electoral base has “considerably widened” beyond those categories, Ipsos said, noting that the party had increased its scores by 15 to 20 percentage points among retirees, women, people younger than 35 years old, voters with higher incomes and big-city dwellers.

“In the end, the National Rally vote has spread,” the polling institute said, “creating a more homogeneous electorate than before, and one that is quite in tune with the French population as a whole.”

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

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Nathan
Nathan

Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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