France sees large voter turnout in 2nd round of high-stakes legislative elections

PARIS (AP) — Voting was underway in France on Sunday in pivotal runoff elections that could hand a historic victory to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and its inward-looking, anti-immigrant vision — or produce a hung parliament and political deadlock.

The snap legislative elections in this nuclear-armed nation will influence the war in Ukraine, global diplomacy and Europe’s economic stability, and they’re almost certain to undercut French President Emmanuel Macron for the remaining three years of his presidency. He took a huge gamble in dissolving parliament and calling for the vote after his centrists were trounced in European elections on June 9.

WATCH: What’s next for France after far right wins big in 1st round of snap elections

The first round on June 30 saw the largest gains ever for the nationalist National Rally, which came out on top.

Over 49 million people are registered to vote in the elections, that will determine which party controls the 577-member National Assembly, France’s influential lower house of parliament, and who will be prime minister. If support is further eroded for Macron’s weak centrist majority, he will be forced to share power with parties opposed to most of his pro-business, pro-European Union policies.

Voters at a Paris polling station were acutely aware of the the far-reaching consequences for France and beyond.

“The individual freedoms, tolerance and respect for others is what at stake today,” said Thomas Bertrand, a 45-year-old voter who works in advertising.

Racism and antisemitism have marred the electoral campaign, along with Russian disinformation campaigns, and more than 50 candidates reported being physically attacked — highly unusual for France. The government is deploying 30,000 police on voting day.

The heightened tensions come while France is celebrating a very special summer: Paris is about to host exceptionally ambitious Olympic Games, the national soccer team reached the semifinal of the Euro 2024 championship, and the Tour de France is racing around the country alongside the Olympic torch.

Reflecting the high stakes, people turned out in large numbers not normally seen for a legislative election, after decades of deepening voter apathy for such votes and, for a growing number of French people, politics in general. As of 5 p.m. local time, turnout was at 59.7 percent, according to France’s Interior Ministry, the highest at that time in the voting day since 1981. During the first round, the nearly 67 percent turnout was the highest since 1997.

The outcome is uncertain

The outcome remains highly uncertain. Polls between the two rounds suggest that the National Rally may win the most seats in the National Assembly but fall short of the 289 seats needed for a majority. That would still make history, if a party with historic links to xenophobia and downplaying the Holocaust, and long seen as a pariah, becomes France’s biggest political force.

If it does win a majority, France would have its first far-right government since World War II, with 28-year-old party leader Jordan Bardella as prime minister.

If no party gets a majority, that would mean a hung parliament. The National Rally could try to form a coalition — though it has no natural partners among centrists and leftists — or Macron could try to pursue one with the center-left or name a technocratic government with no political affiliations.

No matter what happens, Macron’s centrist camp will be forced to share power — including possibly with a prime minister who deeply disagrees with the president’s domestic and foreign policies, in an awkward arrangement known in France as “cohabitation.”

Many candidates from his centrist alliance lost in the first round or withdrew, meaning it doesn’t have enough people running to come anywhere close to the majority he had in 2017 when he was was first elected president, or the plurality he got in the 2022 legislative vote.

Either a far-right victory or a hung parliament would be unprecedented for modern France, and make it more difficult for the European Union’s No. 2 economy to make bold decisions on arming Ukraine, reforming labor laws or reducing its huge deficit. Financial markets have been jittery since Macron surprised even his closest allies by announcing the elections.

Regardless of what happens, Macron said he won’t step down and will stay president until his term ends in 2027.

Pierre Lubin, a 45-year-old business manager, was worried about whether the elections would produce an effective government.

“This is a concern for us,” Lubin said. “Will it be a technical government or a coalition government made up of (various) political forces?”

National Rally connected with voters frustrated with their leaders

Many French voters, especially in small towns and rural areas, are frustrated with low incomes and a Paris political leadership seen as elitist and unconcerned with workers’ day-to-day struggles. National Rally has connected with those voters, often by blaming immigration for France’s problems, and has built up broad and deep support over the past decade.

Le Pen has softened many of the party’s positions — she no longer calls for quitting NATO and the EU — to make it more electable. But the party’s core far-right values remain. It wants a referendum on whether being born in France is enough to merit citizenship, to curb rights of dual citizens, and give police more freedom to use weapons.

On Sunday, Macron cast his ballot in the seaside resort town of La Touquet, along with his wife, Brigitte. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal voted earlier in the Paris suburb of Vanves.

Le Pen is not voting because her district in northern France is not holding a second round after she won the seat outright last week. Across France, 76 candidates secured seats in the first round, including 39 from Le Pen’s National Rally, 32 from the leftist New Popular Front alliance, and two from Macron’s centrist list.

The elections wrap up Sunday at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT). Initial polling projections are expected Sunday night, with early official results expected late Sunday or early Monday.

Sitting in a deck chair along the Canal Saint-Martin in eastern Paris, Fernando Veloso said people are perplexed by the prospect of divided government.

“It’s going to bring confusion,” the 67-year-old retiree said. “Will they be able to govern properly in a cohabitation government, with Macron still in power? It’s tricky.”

“Tensions are running high,” Veloso added. “It’s worrying. Very worrying.”

Surk reported from Nice, France. Associated Press journalist Alex Turnbell in Paris contributed to this report.

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