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French voters push far-right National Rally to strong lead in first round of elections

French far right leader Marine Le Pen reacts as she meets supporters and journalists after the release of projections based on the actual vote count in select constituencies on Sunday in Henin-Beaumont, northern France.
Thibault Camus
French far right leader Marine Le Pen reacts as she meets supporters and journalists after the release of projections based on the actual vote count in select constituencies on Sunday in Henin-Beaumont, northern France.

PARIS — The far-right National Rally leaped into a strong lead Sunday in France's first round of legislative elections, polling agencies projected, bringing the party closer to being able to form a government in round two and dealing a major slap to centrist President Emmanuel Macron and his risky decision to call the surprise ballot.

When he dissolved the National Assembly on June 9, after a stinging defeat at the hands of the National Rally in French voting for the European Parliament, Macron gambled that the anti-immigration party with historical links to antisemitism wouldn't repeat that success when France's own fate was in the balance.

But it didn't work out that way. With French polling agencies projecting that the National Rally and its allies got about one-third of the national vote on Sunday, Macron's prime minister warned that France could end up with its first far-right government since World War II if voters don't come together to thwart that scenario in round two next Sunday.

“The extreme right is at the doors of power,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said. He twice described National Rally policy pledges as “disastrous” and said that in the second-round ballot, “not one vote should go to the National Rally. France does not deserve that."

French polling agencies' projections put Macron’s grouping of centrist parties a distant third in the first-round ballot, behind both the National Rally and a new left-wing coalition of parties that joined forces to keep it from winning power.

Securing a parliamentary majority would enable National Rally leader Marine Le Pen to install her 28-year-old protege, Jordan Bardella, as prime minister and would crown her yearslong rebranding effort to make her party less repellent to mainstream voters. She inherited the party, then called the National Front, from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has multiple convictions for racist and antisemitic hate speech.

Still, the National Rally isn’t there yet. With another torrid week of campaigning to come before the decisive final voting next Sunday, the election’s ultimate outcome remains uncertain.

Addressing a jubilant crowd waving French tricolor flags of blue, white and red, Le Pen called on her supporters and voters who didn't back her party in the first round to push it over the line and give it a commanding legislative majority. That scenario would force Bardella and Macron into an awkward power-sharing arrangement. Macron, first elected in 2017, has said he will not step down before his second term expires in 2027.

“The French have almost wiped out the ‘Macronist’ bloc,” Le Pen said. The results, she added, showed voters’ “willingness to turn the page after 7 years of contemptuous and corrosive power.”

Early official results showed some remarkable far-right successes. Le Pen herself was one of six National Rally candidates that won their races outright in the Pas-de-Calais, a once heavily industrialized region of northern France, securing more than 50% of the vote in their districts on Sunday, meaning they won't face a second-round ballot. National Rally candidates were also ahead in all of the region's six other districts heading into round two.

In Le Pen's district, 54-year-old voter Magali Quere said she used to find the far right scary "but not anymore.”

Only the second round will make clear whether Le Pen’s party and its allies get the absolute majority they would need to comfortably form a government and then start to implement their promises to dismantle many of Macron's key policies and foreign policy platforms. That would include stopping French deliveries of long-range missiles to Ukraine in the war against Russia’s full-scale invasion. The National Rally has historical ties to Russia.

The far right's more confrontational approach to the European Union, its plans to roll back Macron's pension reforms and National Rally promises to boost voters' spending power without clearly detailing how it would pay for the pledge could also spook European financial markets.

National Rally opponents fear for civil liberties if it takes power. Macron himself warned that the far right could set France on a path to civil war. Its plans to boost police powers and curb immigration also alarm many, including minorities. The National Rally has long been hostile toward France’s Muslim community.

"People don’t understand that this will impact us for years and years. This is a France of hate that is growing, not a France of solidarity and union,” said Cynthia Fefoheio, a 19-year-old political science student who was among thousands of people who gathered Sunday night at Paris’ République plaza to protest the National Rally.

Some polling agency projections indicated that in a best-case scenario for the far right, the National Rally and its allies could collectively clear the bar of 289 seats needed for a secure majority in the 577-seat National Assembly.

But it might also fall short and no single bloc may end up with a clear majority, polling agencies projected. Predictions are difficult because of the two-round voting system.

Already on Sunday night, the far-right's opponents were strategizing how to concentrate votes against the National Rally in round two, planning in some districts to pull their candidates out to increase the chances of another candidate beating a far-right rival.

The high turnout — at least 66%, according to polling estimates — reversed nearly three decades of tumbling voter interest for the first round of legislative elections in France. That so many people voted, especially as many are preparing to start or have already started traditional summer vacations, showed how the quick campaign and its high stakes galvanized the electorate. Many voters saw an opportunity to impose a government on Macron, to reprimand his presidency and force a change in course.

Many voters are frustrated with inflation and other economic concerns, as well as with Macron. The National Rally tapped that discontent, notably via online platforms such as TikTok. It campaigned heavily on the rising cost of living and immigration. The campaign was marred by rising hate speech.

“People don't like what has been happening,” said Cynthia Justine, 44. “People feel they've lost a lot in recent years. People are angry. I am angry.”

“Because I am a Black woman, it's even more important. A lot is at stake on this day," she added.

The National Rally has questioned the right to citizenship for people born in France, and it wants to curtail the rights of French citizens with dual nationality. Critics say that undermines human rights and is a threat to France’s democratic ideals.

At the election celebration in Le Pen's stronghold of Henin-Beaumont, 41-year-old Edouard Guillebot said the far right's success had been a long time coming.

“This is a revenge of the people against the elites, in the media and politics,” he said. “I am of those who have voted for everyone. They lied to us by telling us immigration was a chance for the country.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]