France election
A voter casts ballot during the second round of France's crunch legislative elections at a polling station in Bordeaux, south-western France on July 7, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: French voters turned out en masse Sunday for the second round of parliamentary elections, with turnout at 5pm (1500 GMT), three hours before polls close, at its highest in four decades.

Interior ministry figures showed 61.4 percent of the electorate had taken part in the poll, which is expected to leave Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (RN) as the largest party in parliament.

President Emmanuel Macron called the snap elections three years ahead of time after his forces were trounced in June's European parliament vote, a gamble which seems to have backfired.

Far right leader Marine Le Pen's National Rally (RN) came top in the June 30 first round, and is on course to repeat the feat in Sunday's run off races.

But she may not win the outright majority that would force Macron to appoint Le Pen's lieutenant, the RN party leader Jordan Bardella, 28, as prime minister just weeks before Paris hosts the Olympics.

A hung parliament with a large eurosceptic, anti-immigration contingent could weaken France's international standing and threaten Western unity in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

With the country on tenterhooks, last week saw more than 200 tactical-voting pacts between centre and left wing candidates in seats to attempt to prevent the RN winning an absolute majority.

This has been hailed as a return of the anti-far right "Republican Front" first summoned when Marine Le Pen's father Jean-Marie faced Jacques Chirac in the run-off of 2002 presidential elections.

Following the pacts, opinion polls forecast that the RN would fall well short of the 289 seats needed for an outright majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, while still becoming the largest party.


Such an outcome could allow Macron to possibly build a broad coalition against the RN and keep Gabriel Attal as prime minister on a caretaker basis.

But it could also herald a long period of paralysed politics in France, as it prepares to host the Olympics from July 26.

"Today the danger is a majority dominated by the extreme right and that would be catastrophic," Attal said in a final pre-election interview with French television on Friday.

Many in France remain baffled over why Macron called an election which could end with the RN doubling its presence in parliament and his contingent of centrist MPs halving in number.

But the president, known for his theatrical gestures, appears intent on executing what he calls a "clarification" of French politics, which he hopes will eventually leave three clear camps of far right, centre and hard left.

The final opinion polls published by two organisations on Friday projected the RN would win between 170 to 210 seats, followed by the New Popular Front (NFP) broad left-wing coalition on 145 to 185 and Macron's centrists on 118 to 150.

While Macron's Ensemble alliance is forecast to come third, the more successful NFP is a fragile mix of several warring factions ranging from traditional Socialists to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) of firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.

'Weaken France's voice'

"France is on the cusp of a seismic political shift," said analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), warning that even if Macron controlled the government after the election he would face "legislative gridlocks".

This would weaken "France's voice on the European and international stage."

Macron, who disappeared from public view over recent days in order not to provoke the electorate further, has vowed to serve out his term until 2027, when he must step down.

That is when Le Pen scents her best chance to win the Elysee presidential palace at the fourth attempt.

Le Pen has angrily denounced what she has described as Macron's vision for "one party" rule spanning the right to left by excluding the RN and lashed out at the French elites, which she says conspire against it.

But after the success of the first round, the RN had a sometimes tricky final week of campaigning with a handful of scandals involving RN candidates - including one who had been photographed wearing a Nazi military cap.

After voting began on Saturday in France's overseas territories, polls opened in mainland France at 0600 GMT and were due to close by 1800 GMT.

Projections - which usually give a very close idea of the final outcome - are published shortly afterwards, with the political leaders then reacting rapidly in an election frenzy that holds the nation spellbound.

More than 50 candidates and campaign activists have been physically assaulted during the four-week campaign, the shortest in modern French history, and 30,000 police, including 5,000 in Paris, have been deployed this weekend to head off trouble.