Tension as France's snap election campaign comes to a climax

France's Prime Minister Gabriel Attal may have to remain in office for the coming months at the head of a lame duck caretaker regime (ARNAUD FINISTRE)
France's Prime Minister Gabriel Attal may have to remain in office for the coming months at the head of a lame duck caretaker regime (ARNAUD FINISTRE)

Tensions were running high Friday as France's election campaign came to an end ahead of a one-day pause and then a historic run-off vote that could paralyse government or see the far right sweep to power.

More than 50 candidates and campaign activists have been physically assaulted during the campaign, the shortest in modern French history, and 30,000 police will be deployed this weekend to head off trouble.

Friday was the last official day of campaigning with Saturday a day of rest before polls open on Sunday for run-off races in constituencies that failed to choose an outright winner last Sunday.

Last month, President Emmanuel Macron plunged his country's future into doubt by calling a snap legislative poll after his centrist allies were trounced in European elections.

He explained his shock decision as a chance for French voters to reject a slide towards extremes and to reset parliament.

But, with the midnight end to campaigning just hours away, it was anti-immigration, Eurosceptic leader Marine Le Pen's National Rally (RN) that had the wind in its sails ahead of Sunday's second round vote.

- Outright win? -

"I think we have a serious chance of having an absolute majority," Le Pen told broadcasters CNews and Europe1 on Friday, dismissing opinion polls suggesting otherwise as an effort to demotivate her voters.

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon of France Unbowed (LFI) also hopes to defy the pollsters and mobilise the 16 million voters who sat out the first round of voting.

"We can win," he insisted.

While forecasts predict Le Pen's party will wield the biggest bloc in the National Assembly, they also suggest it will fall short of the outright majority that would compel Macron to appoint her lieutenant Jordan Bardella prime minister.

Macron's centrist supporters are expected to lose ground, leaving him without a parliamentary majority for his remaining close to three years in office.

The government of France -- a nuclear-armed G7 world power, permanent member of the UN Security Council and second-biggest economy in the European Union -- could be paralysed.

A far-right win, meanwhile, could hobble French influence in Brussels, where it has been one of the main motors of EU integration, and damage Western support for Ukraine in its fight against a Russian invasion.

Le Pen, in an interview with broadcaster CNN insisted that Macron could not decide on support on Ukraine against the wishes of the future head of government.

"If Emmanuel Macron wants to send troops to Ukraine and the prime minister is against it, then there are no troops sent to Ukraine," she said.

Friday's polls suggest the RN and its far-right allies will win between 200 and 230 seats in the 577-seat assembly, up from the current 88 but not an outright win.

The same pollsters, Elabe and OpinionWay, predict the left-wing New Popular Front will command between 145 and 190 seats and Macron's centrist camp 120 to 162 -- leaving parliament in limbo.

For Le Pen, this would be "not chaos but a quagmire, a total standstill", she said.

Outside analysts shared this concern.

"We believe Le Pen's far right is unlikely to seize power this weekend, but that France will face at least 12 months of rancorous muddling and possibly three years of political chaos," the Eurasia Group wrote.

On the left, leaders like Marine Tondelier of the Greens envisage a broad alliance of left, centre and centre-right to exclude the far right.

- 'As long as necessary' -

But it is not yet clear whether all the electors whose first-choice candidates were eliminated in the first round will fall in line behind an anti-RN front.

Polls suggest that only between a third and a half of centrists could switch to the left-wing alliance to fend off the far right, while perhaps two-thirds of left voters could back a centrist.

Macron ally Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, campaigning Friday in Paris, said his minority administration might remain in place after polling day for "as long as necessary".

This might see France through hosting the Olympics summer games from July 26 to August 11, but observers think it is unlikely to hold until the next French presidential election in April 2027.

On financial markets, French stocks held steady Friday with investors expecting the far right to fail in its bid to win an absolute majority.

But analysts predicted a swift negative reaction if the far right wins power and tries to implement its costly economic programme, which includes reversing Macron's hard-won pension reforms.

"There doesn't seem to be much room for additional spending," said Jeffrey Kleintop at the Charles Schwab brokerage. France could end up with the "widest deficit" amongst its peers, he warned.