French President Emmanuel Macron takes a selfie as he meets with supporters after voting in the first round of parliamentary elections outside a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France on June 30, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

PARIS: French voters turned out in large numbers on Sunday for the first round of high-stakes snap parliamentary elections which could alter France’s trajectory and see the far-right party of Marine Le Pen take power in a historic first.

President Emmanuel Macron stunned the nation by calling snap polls after the far-right National Rally (RN) party’s strong showing in European Parliament elections this month.

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With Russia’s war against Ukraine in its third year and energy and food prices much higher, support for the anti-immigration and eurosceptic party has surged despite Macron’s pledges to prevent its ascent.

The two-round vote could put the far-right in power in France for the first time since the Nazi occupation in World War II.

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Presented with a crucial choice about France’s future, many said they could not stay home, while political observers pointed to the highest voter turnout in decades.

In the southern city of Marseille, Nabil Agueni said he skipped the European elections but voted on Sunday.

“As long as we have a choice, it’s better to go and vote”, the 40-year-old said.

‘Keep fighting’

In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, Roxane Lebrun, 40, sounded worried.

“I don’t recognise my country anymore,” she said. “We have to keep fighting for what we believe in and what we want for France.”

Julien Martin, a 38-year-old architect, added: “These are not easy elections, the results are very uncertain, and the repercussions could be serious for society.”

Image Credit: Bloomberg

Macron and his wife Brigitte cast their ballots in Le Touquet in northern France, with the 46-year-old president seen taking selfies and mingling with supporters.

As of noon, turnout in mainland France stood at 25.90 percent, an increase from the 18.43 percent recorded in legislative elections in 2022.

“This is the highest level since the 1981 legislative elections,” Mathieu Gallard, research director at the Ipsos polling institute, said on X (formerly Twitter).

According to most polls, the RN party is on course to win the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house, although it remains unclear if it will secure an outright majority.

Predictions of deadlock

Final opinion polls have given the RN between 35 per cent and 37 per cent of the vote, compared to 27.5-29 percent for the left-wing New Popular Front alliance, and 20-21 per cent for Macron’s centrist camp.

Mujtaba Rahman, Europe head at Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy, said turnout was key to the outcome of the election.

“The higher the turnout, the more candidates qualify,” he said on X.

He said that the left-wing alliance and Macron’s centrist camp would be able “to make deals to withdraw worst-placed candidates and allow the others a free run against the far right candidate” in the second round of voting.

Polling stations opened across mainland France at 8am (0600 GMT) and will close 12 hours later, immediately followed by projections that usually predict the result with a degree of accuracy.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal was set to make a statement on Sunday evening, his team said.

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Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s 28-year-old protege with no governing experience, could become prime minister. Image Credit: Bloomberg

If the RN obtains an absolute majority, party chief Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s 28-year-old protege with no governing experience, could become prime minister in a tense “cohabitation” with Macron.

Many analysts say that France is facing a hung Assembly, which could lead to deadlock and political instability.

The shape of the new parliament will become clear after the second round on July 7.

Spike in hate speech

Voters in France’s overseas territories had cast ballots earlier in the weekend.

Electors lined up to cast ballots in France’s Pacific territory of New Caledonia, where tensions remain high following deadly riots there last month.

“It should be well attended, but I don’t know if everyone will play along and come out to vote,” said nurse Cassandre Cazaux.

Macron’s decision to call the snap vote plunged the country into political turmoil and sparked uncertainty in Europe’s second-biggest economy.

The Paris stock exchange suffered its biggest monthly decline in two years in June, dropping by 6.4 per cent, according to figures released on Friday.

In an editorial, French daily Le Monde said it was time to mobilise against the far right.

“Yielding any power to it means nothing less than taking the risk of seeing everything that has been built and conquered over more than two and a half centuries gradually being undone,” it said.

Many have pointed to a spike in hate speech, intolerance and racism during the charged campaign. A video of two RN supporters verbally assaulting a black woman has gone viral in recent days.

Macron has deplored “racism or anti-Semitism”.

Support for Macron’s centrist camp tumbled during the campaign, while left-wing parties put their bickering aside to form the New Popular Front, in a nod to an alliance founded in 1936 to combat fascism.

Analysts say Le Pen’s years-long efforts to clean up the image of a party co-founded by a former Waffen SS member have been paying off.

A defiant Macron has stood by his decision to call the elections, while warning voters that a win by the far right or hard left could spark a “civil war.”