French voters stayed away from the polls in large numbers during the first round of a legislative election expected to deliver a comfortable majority for newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron.
The turnout rate was 41% by late afternoon, according to the Interior Ministry. That was down from 48% in the first round of the last parliamentary elections in 2012.
The voter apathy suggested a sharp drop in voter interest in an election that even Mr Macron’s opponents felt was largely lost in advance, with the president’s En Marche party widely expected to secure a majority.
“I think people don’t realise how important these elections are,” said Pamela Guillou, who voted in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen was hoping to win a legislative seat for the first time.
Another Henin-Beaumont resident, David Queneutte, blamed voter fatigue with politicians.
“With all the promises that they’ve made and that they never hold, there’s less and less people who go out and vote,” he said.
A total of 7,882 candidates were running for 577 seats in the National Assembly. Under France’s election rules, low turnout could see fewer candidates advance to the decisive second round next Sunday.
Polls suggest voters will strongly favour Mr Macron’s party and dramatically shake up French politics, punishing the traditional left and right parties and leaving no single strong opposition force.
An absolute majority for Mr Macron’s party would enable him to implement campaign promises to simplify labour rules and make it easier to lay off workers in hopes of boosting hiring.
The government outlined the main themes of a major labour reform that has already angered French unions and is likely to prompt tensions over the summer.
Mr Macron also plans to quickly pass a law to strengthen security measures – effectively making the state of emergency permanent, after multiple Islamic extremist attacks in France – and another one that he says will put more ethics into French politics.
The government needs a new National Assembly in place to vote on the bills.
Mr Macron called on French voters to give him a “majority to make changes” on the night of his victory on May 7. “That’s what the country wants and that’s what it deserves,” he said.
A minimum of 289 seats is required to secure an absolute majority.
Latest polls suggested Mr Macron’s movement could potentially win as many as 400 seats.
His party’s candidates include many newcomers to politics, including a retired bullfighter, a fighter pilot and a mathematical genius. Half of them are women.
Candidates from the conservative Republicans party are expected to arrive in second position, and other parties with possibly more than 100 seats. The Socialists, who dominated the last Assembly, are expected to suffer a stinging defeat and win just a few dozen seats.
In the wake of Ms Le Pen’s qualification for the presidential run-off, her far-right National Front party is expected to get its highest-ever score, but does not appear able to become the major opposition force Ms Le Pen had hoped for. Polls project it could win about a dozen seats, in part because of a voting system that favours the biggest parties.
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came in a strong fourth place in the presidential vote with nearly 20% support, is running for a parliamentary seat in the southern city of Marseille. His movement could obtain between 10 and 20 seats.
Parisian voter Thibault Gouache said he was keen to see fresh faces in the parliament.
“The most important thing is changing the people that do politics,” he said. Many candidates have already served multiple terms and “are disconnected to the reality of what we live on a day by day basis.”
To win in the first round, candidates need an absolute majority and support from at least a quarter of the district’s registered voters.
Otherwise, all contenders who get at least 12.5% of the votes of registered voters advance to the second round.
The French Parliament is made up of two houses, the National Assembly and the Senate. The legislative elections do not concern the Senate, which is currently run by a conservative majority.
The National Assembly always has the final say in the voting process of a law.