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French far-right aims for electoral victory, but a stalemate is expected.

France is currently voting in one of its most pivotal elections in years, with the far-right aiming for a historic win, but political gridlock seems more probable.

For the first time, the anti-immigration National Rally (RN) led by Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella has a realistic chance of leading the government and gaining control of the National Assembly. However, following RN’s success in the first round of snap parliamentary elections last Sunday, over 200 opposing candidates withdrew to boost others’ chances of defeating the far-right.

Voting commenced in mainland France at 08:00 (06:00 GMT), with the first exit polls expected 12 hours later. Regardless of the outcome, it seems unlikely that President Emmanuel Macron will emerge favorably.

Four weeks ago, Macron deemed it responsible to call a snap vote in response to RN’s victory in European elections, moments after the party’s 28-year-old leader, Jordan Bardella, challenged him. The unexpected two-round election has surprised a nation preparing for the Paris Olympics starting July 26. With heightened security, 30,000 police officers have been deployed amid increased political tension. Fears of violence in Paris and other cities persist, regardless of the election results, prompting a ban on a planned protest outside the National Assembly on Sunday evening.

In Dreux, an old town en route to Normandy, Sunday’s vote coincided with the Olympic flame’s passage. “For us, it’s a massive event, more significant than the election,” said Pauline from the tourist office. The flame has been touring France for nearly two months, and Dreux is celebrating its arrival with weekend festivities. “Macron should have waited until after the Olympics,” Dreux resident Antoine remarked to the BBC.

Veteran commentator Nicolas Baverez opined that the president has not only jeopardized his term but also opened the door to far-right power, potentially compromising the Paris 2024 Olympics and France’s international reputation, as he wrote in Le Point on the election’s eve.

The Dreux constituency is among those to watch in the second election round. Candidates like Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella have already secured their seats by winning more than half the vote. However, another 500 contests are being decided in run-offs, mostly involving two or three candidates. Former conservative cabinet minister Olivier Marleix was defeated in the first round by far-right candidate Olivier Dubois. Both qualified for the run-off, along with a candidate from the left-wing New Popular Front, second place nationally. Since Nadia Faveris narrowly missed third place against her conservative rival, she withdrew to “block National Rally”.

A voter named Morgan expressed skepticism that anything would change in the town, regardless of the winner. “For 10 years, our governments have been making promises but never delivered. If RN wins, I don’t think anything would change either,” Morgan said.

Parties opposing an RN victory range from the radical left, Communists, and Greens to Macron centrists and conservatives, all claiming to defend the country from far-right policies. National Rally has moderated many policies but still advocates giving French citizens “national preference” over immigrants for jobs and housing, abolishing automatic citizenship for children of immigrants who have lived in France for five years between ages 11 and 18, and barring dual nationals from certain sensitive jobs.

Opinion polls are unreliable as each of the 500 races is a local contest, and voters often ignore party recommendations. If RN secures over 250 seats, it might seek allies to form a minority government. President Macron’s party managed with similar numbers until his frustration with limited parliamentary reform power.

Such an RN government is improbable, says Prof. Armin Steinbach of HEC business school in Paris, predicting a no-confidence vote. The French constitution prohibits another general election for at least a year. Another possibility is a “grand coalition” involving most parties except the radical France Unbowed (LFI), which Macron’s alliance and conservatives reject as extremists. This idea has gained traction recently, but Greens leader Marine Tondelier insists, “there’ll be no Macronist prime minister,” regardless of the outcome.

Another potential solution is a technocrat government, similar to those that managed Italy during the eurozone debt crisis, possibly including politicians with proven expertise. Whatever the case, France is entering uncharted territory, says Jean-Yves Dormagen of the Cluster 17 institute. President Macron has declared he will not resign and intends to complete his final three years in office. “We will have Macron as a lame duck president who created this mess without needing to,” Prof. Steinbach told the BBC. “And he’s losing legitimacy.”

The immediate concern for France is ensuring a functioning government during the Olympic Games. Constitutional expert Benjamin Morel suggests a national unity government until the end of the Paris Games. “That would give the parties time to reach an agreement by the start of the school year and the next budget,” he told Le Figaro.

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