French voters propel far-right National Rally to strong lead in first-round legislative elections

The projections indicated that Macron’s risky decision to call voters back to the polls for the second time in three weeks appeared to have backfired.

Updated - July 01, 2024 04:06 pm IST

Published - June 30, 2024 11:44 pm IST - PARIS

Supporters of Marine Le Pen, French far-right leader and far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally - RN) party candidate, celebrate after partial results in the first round of the early French parliamentary elections, in Henin-Beaumont, France, on June 30, 2024.

Supporters of Marine Le Pen, French far-right leader and far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally - RN) party candidate, celebrate after partial results in the first round of the early French parliamentary elections, in Henin-Beaumont, France, on June 30, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

France’s high-stakes legislative elections propelled the far-right National Rally to a strong but not decisive lead in the first-round vote Sunday, polling agencies projected, dealing another slap to centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

The projections indicated that Macron’s risky decision to call voters back to the polls for the second time in three weeks appeared to have backfired.

French polling agencies said Macron’s grouping of centrist parties could finish a distant third in the first-round ballot. Those projections put Macron’s camp behind both Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and a new left-wing coalition of parties that joined forces to keep her anti-immigration party with historical links to antisemitism from being able to form the first far-right government in France since World War II.

But with another torrid week of campaigning to come before the decisive final voting next Sunday, the election’s ultimate outcome remained uncertain.

Macron urged voters to rally against the far right in the second round.

Addressing a jubilant crowd waving French tricolor flags of blue, white and red, Le Pen called on her supporters and voters that didn’t back her party in the first round to push it over the line and give it a commanding legislative majority. In that scenario, Le Pen’s 28-year-old protege, Jordan Bardella, would become prime minister. Macron, who has said he will not step down before his term expires in 2027, would be forced into an awkward power-sharing arrangement called “ cohabitation” in France.

Still, the National Rally isn’t there yet.

Although polling agency projections gave it around one-third of the national vote on Sunday, it remains unclear how the party’s surge will translate into actual seats in round two.

Some polling agency projections indicated that in the 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. That could spook European financial markets, affect Western support for Ukraine and the management of France’s nuclear arsenal and global military force.

But, depending on how the second round shakes out, the far right could also fall short, with no single bloc securing a clear majority, polling agencies projected. Predictions are difficult because of the two-round voting system, and because parties will work between the rounds to make alliances in some constituencies or pull out of others. Early official results for the first round were expected later Sunday.

Many French voters are frustrated about inflation and other economic concerns, as well as Macron’s leadership, seen as arrogant and out-of-touch with their lives. The National Rally party has tapped that discontent, notably via online platforms such as TikTok.

Voters in Paris had issues including immigration and the rising cost of living on their minds as the country grew more divided between the far-right and far-left blocs, with a deeply unpopular and weakened president in the political center. 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.” She added that with “the rising hate speech,” it was necessary to express frustrations with those holding and seeking power.

She said it was important as a woman to vote since women haven’t always had that right. And “because I am a Black woman, it’s even more important. A lot is at stake on this day.”

Macron called the early elections after his party was trounced in the European Parliament election earlier in June by the National Rally, which has historic ties to racism and antisemitism and is hostile toward France’s Muslim community. It also has historical ties to Russia.

Macron’s call was an audacious gamble that French voters who were complacent about the European election would be jolted into turning out for moderate forces in national elections to keep the far right out of power.

A 64-year-old voter, Philippe Lempereur, expressed fatigue with politicians from the left, right and center and what he called their inability to work together on issues such as ensuring people have shelter and enough to eat. “We vote by default, for the least worse option,” he said. “I prefer to vote than do nothing.”

Bardella, who has no governing experience, says he would use the powers of prime minister to stop Macron from continuing to supply long-range weapons to Ukraine for the war with Russia.

The National Rally has also 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 this undermines human rights and is a threat to France’s democratic ideals.

Meanwhile, huge public spending promises by the National Rally and especially the left-wing coalition have shaken markets and ignited worries about France’s heavy debt, already criticized by EU watchdogs.

In the restive French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, polls closed earlier due to a curfew that authorities have extended until July 8. Violence flared there last month, leaving nine people dead, due to attempts by Macron’s government to amend the French Constitution and change voting lists, which the Indigenous Kanaks feared would further marginalize them. They have long sought to break free from France.

Voters in France’s other overseas territories of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana and French Polynesia, and those voting in offices opened by embassies and consular posts across the Americas cast their ballots Saturday.

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