Candidates exit French runoff to block far right

Marine Le Pen raised the prospect of accepting to form a government even if the RN falls slightly below an absolute majority (Dimitar DILKOFF)
Marine Le Pen raised the prospect of accepting to form a government even if the RN falls slightly below an absolute majority (Dimitar DILKOFF)

More than 200 centrist and left-wing candidates pulled out of France's legislative election runoff by a Tuesday deadline, in a move President Emmanuel Macron hopes will block the far right from winning power.

France votes on Sunday in the final round of snap legislative polls Macron called seeking a "clarification" in politics after his camp was trounced in European elections last month.

His gamble backfired, with the far-right National Rally (RN) of Marine Le Pen winning the June 30 first round. But the key suspense now is whether the RN can get enough seats to form a government.

Faced with the prospect of the far right taking power for the first time since France's occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II, Macron's camp and the left have urged a broad "Republican Front" to stop Le Pen's anti-immigration and eurosceptic party.

By Tuesday evening's deadline to register, more than 210 pro-Macron or left-wing candidates had pulled out of contests in an attempt to prevent the RN winning seats, in what appeared a welcome development for the presidential camp.

But Le Pen appeared to row back on previous comments that the RN would only form a government with an absolute majority of 289 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, saying it would still try if slightly below this figure.

She said her party would seek to form a government and make her 28-year-old protege Jordan Bardella prime minister even with as little as "for example, 270 deputies", requiring them to find support from another 19 MPs to govern.

"If we then have a majority, then yes, of course, we'll go and do what the voters elected us to do," she told broadcaster France Inter.

If Bardella becomes prime minister, this would create a tense period of "cohabitation" with Macron, who has vowed to serve out his term until 2027.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, 35, said late on Monday it "would be catastrophic for the French" to give the far right an absolute majority.

- 'You don't have the right!' -

On Tuesday, Attal came under pressure from a 22-year-old voter during a campaign stop in Paris who accused the centrist camp of not doing enough to prevent the ascent of Le Pen's party.

"You don't have the right to leave the world to the far-right," the man told Attal in a tense exchange, adding that people of his generation "are just starting out in life".

Just 76 lawmakers, almost all from the far right and left were elected outright in the first round of voting at the weekend.

The fate of the remaining 501 seats will be determined in the second round in run-offs between two, three, or in some rare cases, four remaining candidates.

Of the 214 candidates who have decided to quit the race more than 126 are members of the left-wing New Popular Front (NFP) coalition, which came second in the first round, and 78 represent Macron's camp.

An RN candidate on Tuesday dropped out of the race over a social media post showing her in a cap from the Luftwaffe air force of Nazi Germany, a party official said.

Just 109 three-way or four-way contests will take place on Sunday compared with the 311 that had been foreseen after the first round.

But there has been discord within the presidential camp over backing those NFP candidates who hark from the France Unbowed (LFI) hard-left party.

Several heavyweights in the Macron camp, including Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire and former prime minister Edouard Philippe, have argued they should not help candidates from the LFI, which is accused by its critics of extremism and failing to to condemn Hamas after the October 7 attack on Israel.

- 'Administrative coup' -

As tensions rose five days ahead of the ballot, Le Pen accused Macron of rushing to appoint officials to key jobs in the police and other institutions before any cohabitation in what she described as "a form of administrative coup d'etat".

Macron's office urged her to show "restraint", saying appointments have been part of an established routine.

Most projections in the immediate aftermath of the first round showed the RN falling short of an absolute majority.

Analysts say the most likely outcome is a hung parliament that could lead to months of political paralysis, at a time when France is hosting the Olympic Games.

The chaos also risks damaging the international credibility of Macron, a champion of Ukraine's fight against the Russian invasion who is set to attend a NATO summit in Washington immediately after the vote.

The president has not spoken in public since an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.