France votes in legislative elections Sunday that will be decisive in determining its political future and could see the far right become the largest party in parliament for the first time.

Centrist President Emmanuel Macron called the snap elections three years ahead of time after his forces were trounced in June's legislative elections, a gamble which many observers believe backfired.

After coming out on top in the June 30 first round of the polls, the far right of three-time presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was confident her National Rally (RN) could win an absolute majority in parliament and crown her protege and party leader Jordan Bardella, 28, as prime minister.

But the last week saw more than 200 tactical-voting pacts between centre and left wing candidates in seats to prevent the RN winning in a return of the anti-far right "Republican Front" first summoned when Marine Le Pen's father Jean-Marie faced Jacques Chirac in the run-off of 2002 presidential elections.

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This left the latest polls projecting that the RN would fall well short of the 289 seats needed for an outright majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, while still being the largest party in parliament.

- 'Catastrophic' -

Such an outcome could allow Macron to possibly build a broad coalition against the RN and keep Gabriel Attal as prime minister on a caretaker basis. But it could also herald a long period of paralysed politics in France, just as it prepares to host the Olympics from July 26.

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"Today the danger is a majority dominated by the extreme right and that would be catastrophic," Attal said in a final pre-election interview with French television on Friday.

Many in France remain baffled over why Macron called an election he was under no obligation to hold that could end with the RN doubling its presence in parliament and his contingent of centrist MPs halving in number.

But the president, known for his penchant for theatrical gestures, appears intent on executing what he calls a "clarification" of French politics that he hopes will eventually leave three clear camps of far right, centre and hard left.

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The final opinion polls published by two organisations Friday projected the RN would win between 170-210 seats, followed by the New Popular Front (NFP) broad left-wing coalition on 145-185 seats and Macron's centrists on 118-150 seats.

With Macron's Ensemble (Together) Alliance forecast to come third, the success of the NFP marks another key election theme, even if its unity looks fragile as it spans traditional Socialists to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) of firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.

- 'Weaken France's voice' -

Whatever the outcome, the election risks undermining Macron's status as one of Europe's top figures and a key Western bulwark for Ukraine in facing the Russian invasion.

"France is on the cusp of a seismic political shift," said analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), warning that even if Macron controlled the government after the election he would face "legislative gridlocks" that would weaken "France's voice on the European and international stage."

Macron, who disappeared from public view over the last days in an apparent bid not to provoke the electorate any more, has vowed to serve out his term until 2027 when he must step down and when Le Pen scents her best chance to win the Elysee presidential palace.

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Le Pen has angrily denounced what she has described as Macron's vision for "one party" rule spanning the right to left by excluding the RN and lashed out at the French elites which she says conspire against it.

But after the success of the first round, the RN had a sometimes tricky final week of campaigning with a handful of scandals involving RN candidates -- including one who had been photographed wearing a Nazi Luftwaffe hat – putting Le Pen and Bardella under pressure.

After voting began Saturday in France's overseas territories, polls open in mainland France at 0600 GMT and will close by 1800 GMT.

Projections -- which usually give a very close idea of the final outcome -- are published shortly after, with the political leaders then reacting rapidly in an election frenzy that holds the nation spellbound.

More than 50 candidates and campaign activists have been physically assaulted during the four-week campaign, the shortest in modern French history.

About 30,000 police, including 5,000 in Paris, will be deployed this weekend to head off trouble.

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