France votes as Macron battles to win parliamentary majority

The French president hopes to secure an outright majority to carry out tough reforms.

France's President Emmanuel Macron casts his ballot next to his wife Brigitte Macron during the second stage of French parliamentary elections at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France
France's President Emmanuel Macron casts his ballot next to his wife Brigitte Macron during the second stage of French parliamentary elections at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France [Michel Spingler/Pool/AFP]

Voting was under way in France for the high-stakes, second-round parliamentary election with a surge in support for the left-wing alliance threatening recently re-elected President Emmanuel Macron’s hopes for an outright majority.

Macron is facing a challenge from NUPES, a new left-wing alliance led by former Socialist Jean-Luc Melenchon. The rejuvenated left is putting up a fight as rampant inflation drives up the cost of living and sends shockwaves through the French political landscape.

In the first round of voting last Sunday, the two sides were neck-and-neck with about 26 percent. In the second round, the initial field of candidates in nearly all 577 constituencies has been whittled down to two contestants who go head-to-head.

Macron’s coalition hopes to win an outright majority of 289 seats to carry out tough reforms.

Turnout was at 38.11 percent at 15:00 GMT, the interior ministry said on Sunday. The figure was down on the 39.42 percent recorded in the first round on June 12 at the same stage, although up on the 35.33 percent recorded in 2017.

Analysts say the turnout is crucial to whether a new left-wing alliance can pose a serious threat to Macron’s majority. Forecasters suggest participation will remain below 50 percent by the time all polling stations close at 8pm (18:00 GMT).

Opinion polls predict Macron’s Ensemble (Together) coalition of centrist and centre-right parties will end up with the biggest number of seats, but say it is in no way guaranteed to reach the threshold for an absolute majority.

The far right is also likely to score its biggest parliamentary success in decades.

In the town of Sevres just outside Paris, where light rain provided some relief after a major heatwave hit France on Saturday, some voters said they were motivated by environmental concerns to cast a ballot for the Nupes left-wing alliance.

“During the past five years, the presidential majority wasn’t able to meet the challenges of climate change – the current heatwave makes you want to support environmental projects even more,” said Leonard Doco, a 21-year-old film student.

Others said they didn’t trust the leader of the left-wing bloc, who has promised to cut the retirement age to 60 from 62, freeze prices, and ban companies from firing workers if they pay dividends.

“Melenchon is a hypocrite. He makes promises that don’t hold up. Retirement at age 60, that’s impossible,” said Brigitte Desrez, 83, a retired dance teacher, who voted for Macron’s party.

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Paris, said the centre-right and the left-wing coalitions have “radically different ideas about what to do in the face of France’s problems”.

The centrists aim to lower taxes, reform the welfare system benefits and raise the retirement age, while the left plans to tax the rich, raise the minimum wage and lower the retirement age.

Absolute majority?

Failing to reach an outright majority would require a degree of power-sharing among parties – unheard of in France for decades – or result in protracted paralysis and repeat parliamentary elections.

If Macron and his allies miss an absolute majority by just a few seats, they could poach MPs from the centre-right or conservatives. 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.

Hull said fewer than half of France’s electorate went to the polls in the first round, raising concerns over voter turnout. “Low turnout will tend not to favour the incumbents,” he added.

Macron won a second term in April, defeating his far-right rival Marine Le Pen by a comfortable margin. After electing a president, French voters have traditionally used legislative polls that follow a few weeks later to hand their newly elected leader a comfortable parliamentary majority.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies