Le Pen Faces Uphill Struggle to Get Majority in French Election

(Bloomberg) -- Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is trying to outmaneuver rivals that are pulling out well-worn tricks to keep the far-right out of power in the final round of legislative elections on Sunday.

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In what has become something of a French game of chess, the opposition to Le Pen — President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist group and a left-wing alliance — is racing to coalesce and pull out candidates to shut her own people out. She, by turn, is trying to court supporters to back her.

There are two scenarios at stake. One would see her win an absolute majority that would allow the National Rally to easily pass legislation. The other would be a hung parliament where Macron would still dictate foreign policy and would need to compromise on a prime minister, who would be calling the shots on domestic policy.

The anti-National Rally parties are strategically removing certain third-placed candidates from the next round of voting to avoid splitting the vote, narrowing Le Pen’s path to an absolute majority.

A count by Le Monde newspaper showed more than 210 candidates from other parties in runoffs with more than two people chose not to submit the required documentation by a deadline of 6 p.m. Paris time on Tuesday. This included 131 from the leftist New Popular Front alliance and some 80 from Macron’s centrists.

Pulling out of elections to avoid splitting the vote against the far right and form a so-called “Republican Front” is a mainstay tactic in French elections that’s usually limited to a handful of districts. Yet surging turnout this time vastly increased the number of three-way contests in the second round to 306.

“The Republican Front we’ve talked about a lot has come back together,” former Socialist President Francois Hollande said on France 2 television. “Even if it means losing seats, the left should be proud to stand in the way of the far right.”

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Markets have been rattled by uncertainty around the ballot and the risk a far-right government would increase spending and clash with the European Union over deficits. As investors dumped French assets, the 10-year yield premium over German peers rose to highs not seen since 2012. But the stress has eased a little since the first-round vote to the lowest since June 13 on a closing basis at 71 basis points.

The final lineup for Sunday will likely not be published until Wednesday, but the number of intended withdrawals is a blow to Le Pen, even if around 95 three-way contests remain. There were also five four-way runoffs, which Le Monde said have now been reduced to one.

Bloomberg analysis of the French daily’s count crossed with first-round results shows withdrawals were mainly in places where the National Rally was best placed to win. At 6 p.m., 152 candidates had withdrawn from the 161 races where the far right topped the first round.

According to analysis by research journal Le Grand Continent that also takes into account polling on how voters shift their support between rounds, the National Rally could get between 225 and 262 seats.

In a sign that Le Pen is starting to reckon with falling short of her ambition to win 289 districts in order to have an absolute majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, she said earlier on Tuesday that her party would reach out to other lawmakers to try to plug the gap.

National Rally leader Jordan Bardella has previously said he would only accept an invitation to be prime minister if the party and its allies win an absolute majority. It is accepted practice that the president nominates a premier from the largest group in the lower house.

“If we’re just a few members of parliament away from a majority, we’ll try to go find them,” Le Pen told France Inter radio.

Hollande, who is leading in a three-way race, said the National Rally wouldn’t have the capacity to act with only a relative majority. In such circumstances, he said it would be necessary to build a block based on a minimum of campaign pledges of different parties that could govern for at least a year before new elections would be constitutionally possible.

“There is the principle of promises and of responsibility,” the former president said. “Our country can’t come to a standstill.”

National Rally and its allies dominated the first round of voting two days ago, getting 33.2% of the vote. The left-wing New Popular Front alliance got 28%, while Macron’s coalition won 20.8%.

Some early projections Sunday night had indicated the far-right party may be able to get an absolute majority.

There have also been signs this week that the practice of consolidating opposition to the far-right would not hold up so universally in this election. While the parties in the New Popular Front called explicitly for voters to pick anyone but the National Rally, some centrists in Macron’s party have been less clear.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire was among those saying he would not call for people to back candidates from France Unbowed, the far-left party of Jean-Luc Melenchon that makes up part of the New Popular Front. Still, he said not a single vote should go to the far right.

--With assistance from James Hirai and Richard Bravo.

(Updates with new details in the first four paragraphs.)

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