Macron eyes victory as France elects new parliament

A dog waits outside voting booths at a polling station in Castelsarrasin, southern France, during the first round of the French legislative elections on 11 June 2017. Photo: PASCAL PAVANI / AFP

PARIS - French voters went back to the polls on Sunday for the first round of parliamentary elections that are predicted to give President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party a commanding majority.

Macron has enjoyed a political honeymoon since he beat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to become France's youngest-ever president on 7 May, naming a cabinet that crosses left-right lines and making an assured impression in meetings with US President Donald Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

READ: Macron calls for 'historic reconstruction' of Europe

But the 39-year-old president has only done half the job. His Republique en Marche (Republic on the Move, REM) party, which he only founded 14 months ago, now needs a clear majority in the

National Assembly for him to push through the reforms he promised in his campaign.

A host of opinion polls show Macron's untested party could take 30 percent of the first-round vote, putting it on track to secure a landslide in next Sunday's second round.

The centre-right Republicans and the Socialists fear heavy losses after their candidates failed to reach the presidential run-off for the first time in France's post-war history.

Some predictions indicate REM could win around 400 seats in the 577-seat chamber as voters seek to give the new president a strong mandate.

The party has already come first in 10 of the 11 French overseas constituencies that voted before the mainland.

However few MPs are expected to be elected in the first round.

If no candidate wins over 50 percent, the two top-placed contenders go into the second round -- as well as any candidate who won the votes of over 12.5 percent of the electorate.

Around 47 million people are eligible to vote. Polling stations in the largest cities were to remain open until 8:00 pm with exit polls released immediately afterwards.

More than 50,000 police were on patrol in a country still under a state of emergency following a wave of jihadist attacks that have killed more than 230 people since 2015.

In the latest incident, a 40-year-old self-radicalised Algerian was shot and wounded after he attacked a policeman with a hammer outside Paris' Notre Dame cathedral on Tuesday.

Political novices

The new president's party has named many candidates who have never held office in an attempt to freshen up the political scene.

They include Marie Sara, a retired female bullfighter, who is taking on a senior member of Le Pen's National Front in southern France, Gilbert Collard.

The Socialists' demise could be underlined if its leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, 65, is ousted from his Paris seat by REM junior minister Mounir Mahjoubi, who is just 33.

Macron is also trying to usher in an era of "cleaner" politics, banning REM candidates from employing family members if elected and insisting they must not perform consultancy work while in office.

The measures follow the scandal that destroyed the presidential chances of Republicans candidate Francois Fillon who is facing criminal charges for paying his wife Penelope more than 900,000 euros (R13-million) as his parliamentary assistant.

Fillon denies the charges.

Given his crusade, Macron faces embarrassment after his small centrist ally, the MoDem party, was put under preliminary investigation on suspicion of employing fake parliamentary assistants at the European Parliament.

One of Macron's ministers, Richard Ferrand, is also being probed over a property deal involving his wife.

The only opposition

Le Pen's party meanwhile looks set to struggle to win 15 seats nationally, a result that would represent another deep disappointment after her defeat by Macron.

But Le Pen told AFP this week in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont where she is bidding to win a seat that with other parties likely to agree to work with Macron, "we will be the only opposition force."

The far-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party of Jean-Luc Melenchon is also hoping to perform strongly and inflict more pain on the Socialists.

Macron has urged voters to back his reform proposals including an overhaul of the rigid rules that govern hiring and firing in the labour market that are blamed by many economists for holding back growth.

The president was economy minister in the Socialist government that began implementing the reforms last year, sparking mass demonstrations that lasted for months.

AFP

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