Turnout is high as France's snap election enters its final hours

French voters turned out en masse Sunday for the final round of early legislative elections. The results could force President Emmanuel Macron to govern alongside far-right opponents or usher in chronic political instability weeks before the Paris Summer Olympics.

Turnout at 5 p.m. local time was the highest in more than two decades, at about 59.71 percent, the Interior Ministry said. It was much higher than in the previous legislative election in 2022, when turnout at the same time was less than 38.11 percent, reflecting lingering interest in a vote that will determine the future of Mr Macron's second term.

Last month, Mr Macron called elections for the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower and upper house of the French parliament, in a risky gamble that appeared largely unsuccessful after the first round of voting last week.

Most polling stations close at 6:00 PM local time on Sunday, or until 8:00 PM in larger cities. Polling firms’ nationwide polling projections, based on preliminary results, are expected shortly after 8:00 PM. Official results will arrive overnight.

Here's what to look out for.

This will be the key question.

The first round of voting was dominated by the nationalist, anti-immigration National Rally party. An alliance of left-wing parties called the New Popular Front came in second, while Mr Macron's party and its allies came in third.

Seventy-six seats were won outright, about half by National Rally. But the rest went to a runoff.

More than 300 districts were contested in a three-way race, until more than 200 candidates from left-wing parties and Macron's centrist coalition withdrew to avoid splitting the vote and trying to prevent a victory for the far right.

This will make it more difficult, but not impossible, for the National Rally and its allies to achieve an absolute majority.

Most French pollsters expect the party and its allies to win between 175 and 240 seats, short of an absolute majority of 289. But if the National Rally and its allies secure an absolute majority, they will almost certainly be able to form a government, and Mr Macron, who says he will remain in office, will have to work with them.

A controversial outcome is possible with Mr Macron as president and the leader of the National Rally, Jordan Bardella, as prime minister, in what France calls a cohabitation.

The French prime minister and cabinet are accountable to the lower house and determine the country's policies. But they are appointed by the president, who has broad executive powers and is directly elected by the public.

Typically, the president and prime minister are politically aligned. (Every five years, France holds presidential and legislative elections within weeks of each other, making it likely that voters will back the same party twice.) But when the presidency and the National Assembly disagree, the president has no choice but to appoint a prime minister from an opposing party, or someone lawmakers won’t overthrow with a vote of no confidence.

Cohabitation has happened before, between conservative and mainstream left-wing leaders, from 1986 to 1988, from 1993 to 1995, and from 1997 to 2002. But a cohabitation between Mr Macron, a pro-European centrist, and Mr Bardella, a Eurosceptic nationalist, would be unprecedented.

Polls suggest that a likely scenario is a lower house roughly divided into three blocs with competing agendas and, in some cases, deep animosity towards each other: the National Rally, the New Popular Front and a slim centrist alliance that includes Mr Macron's Renaissance party.

As it stands, no bloc seems able to find enough partners to form a majority, leaving Mr Macron with limited options.

“French political culture is not conducive to compromise,” said Samy Benzina, a professor of public law at the University of Poitiers, noting that French institutions are designed to produce “clear majorities capable of governing alone.”

“It would be the first time in the Fifth Republic that a government could not be formed for lack of a solid majority,” he said.

Some analysts and politicians have suggested that a broad cross-party coalition could stretch from the Greens to the more moderate conservatives. But France is not used to building coalitions, and several political leaders have ruled it out.

Another possibility is an interim government that would manage day-to-day affairs until there is a political breakthrough. But that too would be a departure from French tradition.

If none of these solutions work, the country could be headed for months of political stalemate.

The campaign, one of the shortest in modern French history, was marked by a climate of tension, episodes of racism and acts of violence.

A TV news program filmed a couple supporting the National Rally hurling insults at a black neighbor, telling her to “go fuck yourself.” A North African-born TV host revealed a racist letter he received at his home. A bakery in Avignon was burned and covered in homophobic and racist tags.

Gérald Darmanin, France's Interior Minister, said on Friday that more than 50 people, including candidates, their surrogates or supporters, had been “physically assaulted” during the election campaign.

There are fears that the post-election protests will turn violent. Authorities have deployed some 30,000 security forces across the country, including about 5,000 in the Paris region, to manage potential unrest.

Catherine Porter contributed to the writing of the report.

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