French voters on returned to the polls on Sunday for the second round of a parliamentary election, which President Emmanuel Macron’s youthful party is tipped to win by a landslide, completing his reset of national politics.
The assembly is set to be transformed with a new generation of lawmakers — younger, more female and more ethnically diverse — winning seats in the afterglow of Macron’s success in last month’s presidential election.
Macron’s Republique en Marche (Republic on the Move, REM) and its allies are forecast to take 400-470 seats in the 577-member parliament, one of the biggest post-war majorities that would give the pro-EU president a free hand to implement his business-friendly programme.
The scale of the change is forecast to be so large that some observers have compared the overhaul to 1958, the start of the present presidential system, or even the post-war rebirth of French democracy in 1945.
It is also entirely unexpected: Macron was unknown three years ago and initially given little chance of emerging as president, but he and his 16-month-old REM have tapped into widespread desire for change.
Turnout down sharply
But despite the zest for renewal the vote has failed to generate much excitement.
Official statistics showed turnout by mid-afternoon at 35.3 percent, down sharply from the last election in 2012, revealing a degree of election fatigue after four votes in under two months.
Polls show Macron’s party crushing France’s traditional parties, the right-wing Republicans, and Socialists, but also the far-right National Front of defeated presidential candidate Marine Le Pen which faces major disappointment.
The Socialists are set to be the biggest victim of voters’ desire to oust establishment figures associated with years of high unemployment, social unrest and lost national confidence.
Pollsters predict the party will lose well over 200 seats after its five years in power under former president Francois Hollande, possibly leaving them with only around 20.
“People are tired of always seeing the same faces,” said Natacha Dumay, a 59-year-old teacher voting in the northeastern Paris suburb of Pantin where Socialist former justice minister Elisabeth Guigou was voted out a week ago.
“Even if we don’t know the new faces it’s not important. We’re not voting for individuals but for a programme,” Dumay added.
‘Desperately seeking an opposition’
The main concern for observers and critics is the likely absence of any political counterweight to Macron, leading some to forecast that opposition could be led through street protests.
“Desperately seeking an opposition,” declared the front page of Saturday’s Le Parisien newspaper.
Retired businessman Patrick Depardon, 65, told AFP he was dismayed at the prospect of sitting MPs with a good track record being shown the door.
“We’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he said as he voted in southwest Paris.
Turnout will be closely watched after it hit a nearly 60-year low in the June 11 first round of voting, leading some to warn Macron that his mandate is not as strong as he thinks.
REM won 32 percent of the votes cast in the first round, but this represented only about 15 percent of registered voters.
“Go and vote!” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe urged on Thursday, calling it both “a right and a responsibility”.
Around half of REM’s candidates are virtual unknowns drawn from diverse fields of academia, business or local activism. They include a mathematician, a female bullfighter, and a former Rwandan orphan.
The other half are a mix of centrists and moderate left- and right-wing politicians are drawn from established parties including ally MoDem.
Le Pen in action
Key battles on Sunday include far-right leader Le Pen’s attempt to win her first parliamentary seat in the northeastern former coal mining town of Henin-Beaumont.
Her victory would be a rare bright spot for Le Pen’s nationalist and anti-EU party which was once hoping to emerge as the principal opposition to Macron but is now expected to have only a handful of lawmakers.
The hard-left France Unbowed is also struggling to maintain the momentum it had during the presidential election.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, the firebrand leader of the movement, is running for election in the southern city of Marseille on a promise to lead resistance to Macron’s radical labour market reforms.
Apart from loosening labour laws to try boost employment Macron also plans measures to deepen European integration and an overhaul of the social security system.
He has vowed to take on French unions by creating a system of “flexi-security” inspired by Scandinavian countries which combines a solid state-funded safety net with company-friendly legislation.
His confident start at home, where he has concentrated on trying to restore the lost prestige of the president, and his decisive action on the international stage has led to a host of positive headlines.