What to watch out for in the high-stakes French elections

French voters turned out en masse on Sunday for the first round of early legislative elections unexpectedly called this month by President Emmanuel Macron, a gamble that has plunged the country into deep uncertainty about its future.

At midday on Sunday, the turnout rate was almost 26 percent, the Interior Ministry said, the highest rate since 1981 for a similar election and at the same time of day, demonstrating strong interest in a vote that will determine the future of Mr Macron's second term.

Voters are choosing their 577 representatives in the National Assembly, the lowest and most important house of the country's Parliament. A new majority of MPs opposed to Macron would force him to appoint a political opponent as prime minister, radically changing France's domestic politics and confusing his foreign policy.

If a clear majority does not emerge, the country could face months of unrest or political stalemate. Macron, who has ruled out resigning, cannot call new legislative elections for another year.

France's anti-immigration nationalist Rassemblement National party is expected to dominate the race. In second place could be a broad alliance of left-wing parties. Macron's centrist Renaissance party and its allies are expected to lose many seats.

Most polling stations will close at 6pm local time on Sunday, or until 8pm in larger cities. Nationwide vote projections from pollsters, based on preliminary results, are due shortly after 8pm and are usually reliable. Official results, released by the Interior Ministry, will arrive overnight.

Here's what to expect.

France's 577 electoral districts, 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 obtains the most votes.

In each district, any number of candidates can participate in the first round, but there are specific thresholds to advance to the second round, which will be held a week later, on July 7.

In most cases, the second round features the two candidates with the most votes, and whoever gets the most votes in that runoff wins the race. But there are exceptions.

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

Both scenarios have been rare in past years, but are more likely if voter abstention is low, as expected Sunday. Most polling institutes expect the voter participation rate to exceed 60 percent in the first round, up from 47.5 percent in 2022.

The turnout rate at midday was much higher than in 2022, when it was 18.43 percent, and was comparable to the first round of the 2022 presidential race. French presidential elections usually attract the largest number of voters.

French legislative elections typically take place a few weeks after the presidential race and usually favor the party that just won the presidency, making the election less likely to attract voters who believe the outcome is preordained.

But this time the stakes are much higher.

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

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

The National Rally has a comfortable lead in recent polls, with support from around 36% of voters. After decades on the fringes, the anti-immigration, eurosceptic far-right has never been closer to governing France, which would be a surprising development in a country that has been at the heart of the European project. The National Rally prime minister could clash with Macron over issues such as France's contribution to the European Union budget or support for Ukraine in its war against 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 overtaking the far right and forming its own government. The alliance wants to reverse some of the actions taken by Macron's government over the past seven years, such as raising the retirement age. It also wants to roll back corporate tax cuts and tax breaks for the wealthy to dramatically increase social spending and pass a big increase in the minimum wage.

For Mr Macron's centrist party and its allies, the competition is an uphill battle. Polls put them in third place, with about 20 percent, and widely predict they will lose many of the 250 seats they hold. Some of Mr Macron's political allies are running, the leaders of other centrist parties, some of his own ministers and even the prime minister, and a defeat for any of them would be a major blow.

In 2022, Mr 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 votes each. A week later, both were still leading the race, but Mr. Macron's coalition won nearly 250 seats and the left won fewer than 150.

In other words, while the first round of voting is an indicator of what the final results might be, it is not a perfect predictor.

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

But nationwide voter percentages obscure the fact that French legislative elections are, in essence, 577 separate races, and that most seats are only awarded after the second round.

Each party’s prospects depend on the number of runoffs its candidates face: the more, the better the party’s chances of coming out on top on July 7. The type of contests they will face will also become clearer.

And between the two shifts a lot happens. Voters whose favored candidates don't make it to the ballot will either switch to another, or stay home.

Parties will issue voting recommendations at the local or national level to try to influence the outcome. In the past, parties across the spectrum often called on their members to vote strategically against the far right, but this tactic has become worn out.

Candidates can opt out of a three- or four-way race if they are concerned about splitting the vote; several left-wing parties have already announced they will encourage their candidates to do so.

There will also be another week of campaigning: more than enough time for gaffes, missteps or twists that could change the course of any race.

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