French voters flock to polls in high-stakes run-off

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Voters turned out at levels not seen in decades to have their say in snap elections on Sunday that will determine whether the far right enters power for the first time in France’s postwar history or the country ends up with a badly fractured parliament instead.

By noon, slightly less than 27 per cent of registered voters had taken part in the run-off round, compared with 26 per cent in the first round on June 30 and higher than any similar election since 1981, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

The last polls ahead of the run-off showed Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) on track to win the most seats in parliament, but to fall short of an outright majority of 289 seats that would allow it to take the premiership and run the government.

A co-ordinated anti-RN strategy adopted in the campaign’s home stretch by the leftwing alliance Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) and French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists appeared to have paid off, but polls showed neither of them looked capable of winning enough seats to govern either.

Macron in early June took a gamble in calling for the early vote after his centrist Ensemble alliance was trounced by Marine Le Pen’s far-right RN in European elections.

The president defended the move, which angered many even in his own camp, as a necessary moment of “clarification” and called on voters to resist the siren calls of populism. 

But voters do not look inclined to back the president, who has been in power for seven years marked by successive crises and high inflation. 

Le Pen’s RN won the first round last week with 33 per cent of the vote. Turnout for that round was an unusually high 66.7 per cent.

But the party stumbled in the campaign’s final week, as many of its novice candidates appeared unprepared in interviews, while others were shown to have made racist or xenophobic comments online.

The RN’s chances were also dented by deals made between centrist and leftwing parties to withdraw their respective candidates from run-offs so as not to split the vote. The tactic, long known in France as the front républicain, asks voters to back parties they do not usually support in order to stop the far right.

Either a power-sharing government known as a “cohabitation” or a hung parliament could considerably weaken Macron’s presidential authority and lead to gridlock in which policy priorities, such as cutting the ballooning deficit or investing in schools, would go unaddressed.

With the risk of a hung parliament looming, Macron’s centrists and leftwing party chiefs have begun to float options for potentially working together, although their wide policy differences may make co-operation difficult.

Analysts said the National Assembly could be so fractured that a technocratic government might be the only solution, although these have not been common in France.

Voting closes at 6pm local time in towns and small cities and 8pm in bigger cities. Polling companies will unveil initial projections shortly after 8pm.

About 30,000 police officers were to be deployed on Sunday in an effort to head off unrest. Some businesses and retailers in Paris had boarded up their windows, including luxury shops along the Champs-Élysées avenue.

Violence has marred the campaign, with more than 50 candidates or their staffers having reported being physically attacked, a rarity in France.

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