France Votes In Exceptionally High-Stakes Election

PARIS (AP) — Voters across mainland France were casting ballots Sunday in the first round of exceptional parliamentary elections that could put the government in the hands of nationalist, far-right parties for the first time since the Nazi era.

The outcome of the two-round elections, which will wrap up July 7, could impact European financial markets, Western support for Ukraine and how France’s nuclear arsenal and global military force are managed.

Many French voters are frustrated about inflation and economic concerns, as well as President Emmanuel Macron’s leadership, which they see as arrogant and out-of-touch with their lives. Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Rally party has tapped that discontent, notably via online platforms like TikTok, and led in preelection opinion polls.

A new coalition on the left, the New Popular Front, also poses a challenge to the pro-business Macron and his centrist alliance Together for the Republic. It includes the French Socialists and Communists and the hard-left France Unbowed party and vows to reverse a deeply unpopular pension reform law that raised the retirement age from 62 to 64, among other economic reforms.

There are 49.5 million registered voters who will choose 577 members of the National Assembly, France’s influential lower house of parliament, during the two-round voting.

Turnout at midday at the first round stood at 25.9% according to interior ministry figures, higher than the 18.43% at midday during 2022 legislative elections. The vote takes place during the traditional first week of summer vacation in France, and absentee ballot requests were at least five times higher than in the 2022 elections.

The first polling projections were expected at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), when the final polling stations close. Early official results were expected later Sunday night.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, casts his ballot to vote in the first round of the early French parliamentary election, in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, northern France, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (Yara Nardi, Pool via AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, casts his ballot to vote in the first round of the early French parliamentary election, in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, northern France, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (Yara Nardi, Pool via AP)

Yara Nardi via AP

Macron voted in Le Touquet, a seaside town in northern France, along with his wife, Brigitte. Le Pen cast her ballot in her party’s stronghold in northern France.

Voters at a Paris polling station had issues from immigration to inflation and the rising cost of living on their minds as the country has grown more divided between the far right and far left blocs, with a deeply unpopular and weakened president in the political center. The blitz campaign was marred by rising hate speech.

“People don’t like what has been happening,” said Cynthia Justine, a 44-year-old voter. “People feel they’ve lost a lot in recent years. People are angry. I am angry.” She added that with “the rising hate speech,” it was necessary for people to express their frustrations with those holding and seeking power.

“It is important for me because I am a woman and we haven’t always had the right to vote,” Justine said. “Because I am a Black woman, it’s even more important. A lot is at stake on this day.”

Macron called the early elections after his party was trounced in the European Parliament election earlier in June by the National Rally, which has historic ties to racism and antisemitism and is hostile toward France’s Muslim community. It also has historical ties to Russia.

Macron’s call was an audacious gamble that French voters who were complacent about the European election would be jolted into turning out for moderate forces in national elections to keep the far right out of power.

Instead, preelection polls suggested that the National Rally is gaining support and has a chance at winning a parliamentary majority. In that scenario, Macron would be expected to name 28-year-old National Rally President Jordan Bardella as prime minister in an awkward power-sharing system known as “cohabitation.”

While Macron has said he won’t step down before his presidential term expires in 2027, cohabitation would weaken him at home and on the world stage.

A 64 year-old retiree, Philippe Lempereur, expressed fatigue with politicians from the left, right and center and what he called their inability to work together on issues like ensuring people have shelter and enough to eat. “We vote by default, for the least worse option,” he said. “I prefer to vote than do nothing.” His northern France community voted strongly for the National Rally in the European elections.

A woman votes in Strasbourg, eastern France, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)
A woman votes in Strasbourg, eastern France, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Jean-Francois Badias via AP

The results of the first round will give a picture of overall voter sentiment, but not necessarily of the overall makeup of the next National Assembly. Predictions are difficult because of the complicated voting system, and because parties will work between the two rounds to make alliances in some constituencies or pull out of others.

In the past, such tactical maneuvers helped keep far-right candidates from power. But support for Le Pen’s party has spread deep and wide.

Bardella, who has no governing experience, says he would use the powers of prime minister to stop Macron from continuing to supply long-range weapons to Ukraine for the war with Russia.

The National Rally has also questioned the right to citizenship for people born in France, and wants to curtail the rights of French citizens with dual nationality. Critics say this undermines fundamental human rights and is a threat to France’s democratic ideals.

Meanwhile, huge public spending promises by the National Rally and especially the left-wing coalition have shaken markets and ignited worries about France’s heavy debt, already criticized by EU watchdogs.

In the restive French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, polls closed earlier due to a curfew that authorities on the archipelago have extended until July 8. Violence there flared on May 13, leaving nine people dead after two weeks of unrest, due to attempts by Macron’s government to amend the French Constitution and change voting lists in New Caledonia, which the Indigenous Kanaks feared would further marginalize them. They have long sought to break free from France.

Voters in France’s other overseas territories from Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana, French Polynesia and those voting in offices opened by embassies and consular posts across the Americas cast their ballots on Saturday.

Surk contributed from Nice, France. Diane Jeantet contributed from Lens, France.

An earlier version corrected to say Macron voted in Le Touquet instead of Paris.

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