France is voting in the final round of parliamentary elections as President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists attempt to hold on to their majority against a challenge from a new left alliance.
Sunday’s vote will set the balance of power for Mr Macron’s second term, defining his capacity to deliver domestic policy such as raising the retirement age and overhauling state benefits.
Mr Macron, who was re-elected president in April against the far right’s Marine Le Pen, needs a majority for his centrist grouping in the lower house of parliament to have a free hand for his proposals to cut taxes and make changes to the welfare system.
Pollsters have been unable to predict whether Mr Macron will cling on to a majority in what is likely to be a record low turnout.
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All polling firms predict that his centrist alliance, Ensemble, will be the biggest grouping in parliament, but it could fall short of the 289 seats needed for a majority. Final polls this week suggested it would take between 255 and 305 seats in the 577-seat house.
A historic alliance of parties on the left, led by the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, or France Unbowed, party with the Socialists and the Greens, is hoping for a huge increase in seats to reduce the score of Mr Macron’s centrists.
The coalition, known as Nupes, or the New Popular Ecological and Social Union, is predicted to become the largest opposition force. Polls show it could take between 140 and 200 seats.
The contest has turned increasingly bitter in the final week of campaigning with both sides accusing the other of bringing chaos to France.
A senior Macron ally, Christophe Castaner, who is struggling to hold his seat, accused Mr Mélenchon of wanting a “Soviet revolution” and other ministers called the left dangerous anarchists and populists who threatened France’s place in Europe. The left accused Macron of wanting to unravel France’s welfare state.
Ms Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party had appealed to its voters to turn out to oppose Macron. The far right is predicted to significantly increase its presence in parliament and win between 20 and 45 seats.
If Mr Macron’s camp does fall short of an outright majority, that would open a period of uncertainty that could be solved by a degree of power sharing among parties unheard of in France over the past decades — or result in protracted paralysis and repeat parliamentary elections down the line.
Mr Macron, who wants to push up the retirement age, pursue his pro-business agenda and further European Union integration, won a second term in April.
After electing a president, French voters have traditionally used legislative polls that follow a few weeks later to hand him a comfortable parliamentary majority — with Francois Mitterand in 1988 a rare exception.
Mr Macron and his allies could still achieve that.
But the rejuvenated left is putting up a tough challenge, as rampant inflation that drives up the cost of living sends shock waves through the French political landscape.
If Mr Macron and his allies miss an absolute majority by just a few seats, they may be tempted to poach MPs from the centre-right or conservatives, officials in those parties said.
If they miss it by a wider margin, they could either seek an alliance with the conservatives or run a minority government that will have to negotiate laws on a case-by-case basis with other parties.
Even if Mr Macron’s camp does win the 289 seats or more it needs to avoid sharing power, it is likely to be thanks to his former prime minister Edouard Philippe, who will be demanding more of a say on what the government does.
So after five years of undisputed control, Mr Macron, known for his top-down approach to power, is looking at a new mandate where he will need to strike more compromises. — Reuters