France’s snap elections: what to watch out for

France goes to the polls on Sunday for the first round of early parliamentary elections called unexpectedly by President Emmanuel Macron this month, a gamble that has left the country in great uncertainty about the future.

Voters choose their 577 representatives to the National Assembly, the country’s lower and more prominent parliament, which will determine the future of Macron’s second term.

A new majority of lawmakers opposed to Macron would force him to appoint a political opponent as prime minister, radically altering France’s domestic policy and clouding its foreign policy. If there is no clear majority, the country could face months of unrest or political deadlock. Mr Macron, who has ruled out resigning, cannot call new parliamentary elections for another year.

France’s nationalist, anti-immigrant National Rally party is widely expected to dominate the race. A broad alliance of left-wing parties could come second. Macron’s centrist Renaissance Party and its allies are expected to lose many seats.

Most polling stations close at 6:00 p.m. local time on Sunday, or until 8:00 p.m. in larger cities. National polling station vote forecasts, based on preliminary results, are expected immediately after 8:00 p.m. and are generally reliable. Official results, published by the Ministry of the Interiorwill come in all night long.

Here’s what to expect.

France’s 577 constituencies — one for each seat — cover the mainland, overseas departments and territories and French citizens living abroad. In each district, the seat is awarded to the candidate who receives the most votes.

Any number of candidates can participate in the first round in each district, but there are specific thresholds to reach the second round. This will take place a week later, on July 7.

In most cases, the two top vote-getters are present in the second round, and the one who wins the most votes in that second round wins the race. But there are exceptions.

A candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round wins outright, as long as those votes represent at least a quarter of the registered voters in that district. And in some districts, there could be three or even four candidates in the runoff, if they can get a vote equal to at least 12.5 percent of the registered voters.

Both scenarios have been rare in recent years but are more likely if voter abstention is low, as expected on Sunday. Most polling stations expect turnout in the first round to be above 60 percent, compared to 47.5 percent in 2022.

The French parliamentary elections usually take place a few weeks after the presidential elections and usually favor the party that has just won the presidency. This makes it less likely that the elections will attract voters who feel that the outcome has already been determined.

But the stakes are much higher this time.

The goal of each party and its allies is to gain enough seats to form a working majority. If none of them do, France could face months of political turmoil or stalemate.

But if control of the National Assembly passes to Macron’s opposition, he would be forced to appoint a prime minister and cabinet from another political party, which would then control domestic policy. In such scenarios, presidents traditionally maintain control over foreign policy and defense matters, but the Constitution does not always provide clear guidance.

The National Rally has a comfortable lead in the latest pollswith the support of around 36 percent of voters. After decades on the sidelines, the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic far right has never been closer to governing France, a stunning development in a country central to the European project. A prime minister from the Rassemblement National could clash with Macron over issues such as France’s contribution to the European Union budget or its support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.

The alliance of Socialists, Greens, Communists and the far-left France Unbowed party is in second place in the polls, with around 29 percent support, and believes it has a chance of overcoming the far right and forming its own government. The alliance wants to reverse some of the things Mr. Macron’s government has done over the past seven years, such as raising the legal retirement age. It also wants to roll back corporate tax cuts and tax breaks for the wealthy to massively increase social spending, and push through a big increase in the minimum wage.

For Macron’s centrist party and its allies, the fight is an uphill one. Polls show them in third place, with around 20 percent, and they are widely predicted to lose many of the 250 seats they hold. Some of Macron’s political allies are on the run—the leaders of other centrist parties, some of his own ministers, and even the prime minister—and defeat for any of them would be a blow.

In 2022, Macron’s centrist coalition and the left were neck-and-neck in the first round of voting, ahead of all other parties, with around a quarter of the vote each. A week later, both were still ahead of the competition – but Macron’s coalition won almost 250 seats and the left won fewer than 150 seats.

In other words, the first round of voting may give an indication of the final outcome, but it is not a perfect predictor.

One way to analyze the first round is to look at national voting trends: what percentage of the vote did each party get across the country? This is a good way to see whether opinion polls accurately predicted each party’s overall popularity, and to see which forces have momentum going into the final week of campaigning.

But the national voting percentages obscure the fact that France’s legislative elections essentially consist of 577 separate races, with each seat decided only after the second round.

Each party’s prospects depend on how many rounds their candidates are in. The more they achieve, the better their party’s chances of advancing on July 7. What kind of duels they will face will also become clearer.

And a lot happens between the two rounds. Voters whose favorite candidates don’t make it to the second round will either switch to another or simply stay home.

Parties will issue local or national voting advice to try to influence the outcome. In the past, parties across the spectrum have often called on their members to vote strategically against the far right, but that tactic has frayed.

Candidates may decide to withdraw from a three- or four-way race if they are concerned about splitting the vote; Several left-wing parties have done that already announced that they would encourage their candidates to do so.

There will also be a new campaign week – plenty of time for blunders, missteps or twists that could change the course of any race.

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