PARIS (AP) — With their own and France’s fates in the balance, candidates were making their last campaign pushes Friday for the first round of voting in a pivotal and polarizing legislative election in which the centrist government of French President Emmanuel Macron risks a potentially fatal beating at the hands of the surging far right.

With pollsters indicating that the anti-immigration National Rally could greatly increase its number of lawmakers in the National Assembly, the election could radically alter the trajectory of the European Union’s largest country and hamstring Macron — who has been a driving force in EU decision-making — for the remainder of his second and last presidential term.

A far-right victory, coming on the heels of its surge in French voting for the European Parliament this month, risks saddling the president with a National Rally prime minister, Jordan Bardella. That would take the EU’s second-largest economy into unchartered territory because the two men’s plans for France’s future are so sharply opposed.

Bardella, a 28-year-old protege of National Rally leader Marine Le Pen and with no governing experience, says he would use the powers of prime minister to stop Macron from continuing to supply long-range weapons to Ukraine. He cites fears that their ability to strike targets in Russia could suck nuclear-armed France into direct confrontation with the nuclear-armed government in Moscow.

But France’s two-round system of voting — with initial balloting on Sunday to thin down the field for decisive follow-up voting on July 7 — means the election’s ultimate outcome is very uncertain. That allowed National Rally opponents to believe as they canvassed for votes before Friday night’s campaign cutoff that they could still lay the groundwork to prevent a legislative majority in the second round for the nationalist, far-right party with historical links to antisemitism.

Macron dissolved parliament’s lower house and called the quick early election in hopes of shoring up support for his government in the wake of its humiliating defeat in the June 9 European Parliament vote. His gamble triggered an unforeseen redrawing of France’s political map even before French voters overseas started casting ballots online this week.

If it backfires and ushers in France’s first far-right government since its Nazi occupation in World War II, Macron risks being remembered for one of the most earth-shaking political decisions in Europe and misreadings of a nation’s mood since David Cameron triggered the U.K.’s Brexit vote as prime minister in 2016. That led France’s neighbor out of the EU in 2020 after a messy divorce.

On the left of French politics, Macron’s decision has had the effect of galvanizing previously splintered parties into a new coalition that has coalesced behind promises of massive public spending, which opponents say would be ruinous for the economy, jobs and France’s debts, already criticized by EU watchdogs.

On the far right, the National Rally has been bolstered by defections from the traditional right that has shattered in the campaign shakeup. It could also draw voters from far-right fringe parties. Victory on July 7 would crown a yearslong rebranding effort by Le Pen to make the party, previously called the National Front, more palatable to mainstream voters since she inherited it from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has multiple convictions for antisemitic and racist hate speech, ultimately leading her to sideline him.

In the middle ground, Macron and his candidates have been furiously arguing that the left-right blocs are both extreme and dangerous, hoping to rekindle the dynamic that saw him elected as president in 2017 and 2022 but which worked less well in the last legislative elections that followed his reelection, leaving his government without an absolute majority and weakened in the National Assembly.


Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France.

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