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France’s bold election gamble: what’s at stake

President Emmanuel Macron caused chaos in French politics this month when he unexpectedly called early elections.

The surprise move came after his party was battered by the far right in the European Parliament elections. Mr Macron dissolved the lower house of the French parliament and said the first round of legislative elections would be held on June 30. Mr Macron is the first president to do so since 1997.

France now finds itself in unpredictable territory, with the future of Macron’s second term potentially hanging in the balance after one of the shortest election campaigns in modern French history.

Here’s what you need to know about the early elections.

When Mr Macron was elected for a second term in 2022, his party failed to win an outright majority. The centrist coalition he formed has since governed with a small majority, but has struggled to pass certain bills.

Earlier this month, France’s far-right, anti-immigration Rassemblement National party climbed to first place in the European Parliament elections, while the centrist coalition led by Macron’s Renaissance Party finished a distant second.

Mr Macron was not obliged to dissolve parliament, even if the European vote left him with a lower rating with three years left in his presidential term. But he believed a dissolution had become inevitable — opposition figures threatened to topple his government in the fall — and that early elections were the only way to respect the will of the people. The snap elections also confront voters with what he called a stark choice between him and political extremists.

“This dissolution was the only possible choice,” Macron wrote in a letter to French voters on Sunday.

The move is seen as risky: if the Rassemblement National wins a majority, Macron will face a parliament hostile to everything he believes in. After years of trying to create a new image, the nationalist far-right regime has never been closer to ruling France.

“We are ready,” National Assembly President Jordan Bardella said this week.

The presidency is France’s most powerful political office, with broad powers to rule by decree. But the approval of parliament, and especially the 577-seat National Assembly, is required for most major domestic policy changes and major pieces of legislation, such as spending bills or changes to the constitution.

Unlike the Senate, France’s other parliament, members of the National Assembly are directly elected by the people and can overthrow a French cabinet with a vote of no confidence. It also has more leeway to legislate and usually gets the final say if the two houses disagree on a bill. The composition of the National Assembly determines how France is governed.

If Macron fails to secure a strong parliamentary majority, he could find himself in a scenario where he and the National Assembly are on opposing political sides.

Mr. Macron would be forced to choose a prime minister from that opposing party, and that person could in turn form a cabinet. Together, an opposition Prime Minister and Cabinet would complete much of Mr. Being able to block Macron.

Macron’s party and its centrist allies currently hold 250 seats in the National Assembly. The National Rally party has 88 seats, while mainstream conservative Republicans have 61. A weak alliance of far-left, socialist and Green lawmakers has 149 seats. The rest is in the hands of smaller groups or lawmakers who are not affiliated with any party.

The elections will be held in two rounds: the first on June 30 and the second on July 7.

France’s 577 constituencies – one for each seat – cover the mainland, overseas departments and territories, as well as French citizens living abroad. France awards seats to candidates who receive the most votes in each district.

That means there will be 577 different races, each with its own local dynamics and quirks.

In the first round per district, any number of candidates can participate, but there are specific thresholds to reach the second round.

While in most cases the two biggest vote-getters will be present in the runoff, there could be three or even four candidates if they can obtain a number of votes equal to at least 12.5 percent of the registered voters in their districts.

The person who gets the most votes in the second round wins the race. (Under certain circumstances, a candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round wins outright.)

The Rassemblement National is France’s most prominent nationalist, anti-immigrant far-right party. She won local elections and sent nearly 90 lawmakers to the lower house in 2022, but she has never governed the country.

Originally called the National Front, it was founded in 1972 and included former collaborators with the Nazi regime during World War II. The party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was openly racist and publicly downplayed the Holocaust.

Marine Le Pen, Mr Le Pen’s daughter, took over in 2011 and aimed to “de-demonise” the party. She distanced herself from her father’s anti-Semitic statements and even sidelined him in 2015. She also broadened the party’s platform to include pocketbook issues.

But some members remain under fire for racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic comments. The party wants to drastically reduce immigration, make it harder for foreigners to become French, and give French citizens priority over non-French residents in areas such as social benefits.

Ms Le Pen ran for the French presidency in 2012, 2017 and 2022, but lost all three times, twice to Mr Macron. She was a lawmaker in the European Parliament and then a parliamentarian in the National Assembly. She is running for re-election in northern France.

Mr Bardella, Ms Le Pen’s 28-year-old protégé, officially took over as party leader in 2022. The son of Italian immigrants, Mr Bardella grew up in the Paris suburbs and was recently re-elected to the European Parliament. Soft-spoken and impeccably dressed, he embodies Rassemblement National’s efforts to improve its image and is all but certain to become prime minister if the party wins an absolute majority in the election.

The election has already deeply shaken French politics, fostering rare unity on the left, creating chaos on the mainstream right and shattering Macron’s centrist alliance.

Anti-Semitism has been a major theme, as have concerns about the parties’ economic plans. The race has highlighted France’s fragile finances and the prospect of legislative deadlock that could undermine efforts to address the situation.

The National Rally has a comfortable lead in the latest polls with around 36 percent support and it has already gained some allies after the leader of the conservative Republican Party broke a long-standing taboo and announced an alliance.

With little time to campaign, the left parties tried to unite, as in 2022. France Unbowed, a far-left party, joined the Socialists, the Greens and the Communists to form an electoral alliance to create, called the New Popular Front. The parties have avoided competing candidacies in each district and pledged to govern together if they can form a majority. The alliance is currently in second place.

Macron’s party and its centrist allies are in a distant third place, and are widely expected to lose many of their seats.

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