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France votes, with far right seeking power

July 7, 2024 3:43 PM IST

France Elections

France voted on Sunday in a parliamentary run-off election with the far-right National Rally (RN) bidding for power but likely to fall short of a majority, raising the spectre of a chaotic hung parliament.

A hung parliament would severely dent President Emmanuel Macron’s authority and herald a prolonged period of instability and policy deadlock in the euro zone’s second biggest economy.

Should the nationalist, eurosceptic RN secure a majority, it would usher in France’s first far-right government since World War Two and send shockwaves through the European Union at a time populist parties are strengthening support across the continent.

Voting closes at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) in towns and small cities and 8 p.m. in bigger cities. Pollsters will deliver initial projections based on early counts from a sample of voting stations at 8 p.m.

Opinion polls forecast Marine Le Pen’s RN will emerge the dominant force in the National Assembly as voters punish Macron over a cost of living crisis and being out of touch with the hardships people face.

However, the RN is seen failing to reach the 289-seat target that would outright hand Le Pen’s 28-year-old protégé Jordan Bardella the prime minister’s job with a working majority.

The far right’s projected margin of victory has narrowed since Macron’s centrist Together alliance and the left-wing New Popular Front (NPF) pulled scores of candidates from three-way races in the second round in a bid to unify the anti-RN vote.

“France is on the cliff-edge and we don’t know if we’re going to jump,” Raphael Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament who led France’s leftist ticket in last month’s European vote, told France Inter radio last week.

Political violence surged during the short three-week campaign. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has said authorities recorded more than 50 physical assaults on candidates and campaigners.

Some luxury boutiques along the Champs Elysees boulevard, including the Louis Vuitton store, barricaded windows and Darmanin said he was deploying 30,000 police amid concerns of violent protests should the far-right win.

A longtime pariah for many due to its history of racism and antisemitism, the RN has broadened its support beyond its traditional base along the Mediterranean coast and the deindustrialised north, tapping into voter anger at Macron over straitened household budgets, security, and immigration worries.

“French people have a real desire for change,” Le Pen told TF1 TV on Wednesday.

WHAT NEXT FOR MACRON?

Macron stunned the country and angered many of his political allies and supporters when he called the snap election after a humbling by the RN in last month’s European parliamentary vote, hoping to wrong-foot his rivals in a legislative election.

Whatever the final result, his political agenda now appears dead, three years before the end of his presidency.

“Our country is going through a serious crisis, we are only a few hours away from a new order,” said engineer Pascal Cuzange who cast his vote for Macron’s alliance more in protest against the alternatives than in support for the president.

“There is a risk that the country becomes ungovernable.”

France’s business elite is also anxious about the risk of volatile politics and instability ahead.

“We are very concerned about what’s going to happen,” Ross McInnes, chairman of aerospace company Safran, told Reuters. “Whatever the political configuration that will come out of Sunday’s vote, we are probably at the end of a reform cycle that started ten years ago.”

An RN-led government would raise major questions over who really speaks for France in Europe and on the global stage, and over where the EU is headed given France’s powerful role in the bloc. EU laws would be almost certain to restrict its plans to crack down on immigration.

The RN pledges to reduce immigration, loosen legislation to expel illegal migrants and tighten rules around family reunification. On the economy, the RN has watered down some of its frontline policy pledges to shore up household spending and lower the retirement age, constrained by France’s ballooning budget deficit.

Bardella says the RN would decline to form a government if it doesn’t win a majority, although Le Pen has said it might try if it falls just short.

France is not used to building broad cross-party coalitions in the event of a hung parliament. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who looks likely to lose his job, is among a number of political leaders who have ruled such a scenario out. Another possibility in such a scenario is a caretaker government that manages day-to-day affairs but without a reform mandate.

French asset prices have risen on expectations the RN won’t win a majority, with banking shares up and the risk premium investors demand to hold French debt narrowing. Economists question whether the RN’s hefty spending plans are fully funded.

Pensioner Claude Lefloche said France’s future was at stake.

“France is sick, the economy is sick,” he said in the middle class town of Conflans Sainte-Honorine, west of Paris. “My vote today will be an expression of dissatisfaction.”

(Reuters)

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