French far right scores strong in first round of election, poll suggests

The National Rally party won a landslide victory in the first round of voting for the French National Assembly on Sunday, according to early projections, bringing its long-taboo brand of nationalist, anti-immigrant politics to the threshold of power for the first time .

Polling projections, usually reliable and based on preliminary results, suggested that the party would take around 34% of the vote, far more than the centrist Renaissance party of President Emmanuel Macron and his allies, who took around 22% to finish in third place.

A coalition of left-wing parties, called the New Popular Front and ranging from moderate socialists to the far-left France Unbowed, was projected to win about 29% of the vote, boosted by strong support among young people.

Turnout was high, around 67 percent, compared to 47.5 percent in the first round of the last parliamentary election in 2022, demonstrating the importance voters attach to early elections. To many, it seemed that nothing less than France’s future was at stake with a far-right party long considered ineligible for high office because of its rising extreme views.

The two-round election will conclude with a run-off on July 7 between the major parties in each constituency.

The result of Sunday's voting does not provide a reliable projection of the number of parliamentary seats each party will win. But it now seems very likely that the National Rally will become the largest force in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament where most of the power resides, although not necessarily with an absolute majority.

The Home Office's final results are not expected to be published until Monday.

For Mr Macron, now in his seventh year as president, the vote was a major setback after he had bet that the National Rally’s victory in the recent European Parliament elections would not be repeated. There was no obligation to plunge France into summer chaos with a rushed vote, but Mr Macron believed it was his democratic duty to test French sentiment in a national vote.

The first round of voting suggested that the most likely outcomes now are either an absolute majority for the National Rally or an ungovernable National Assembly. In the second scenario, there would be two large blocs on the right and left opposing Macron, and his much-reduced centrist party would be squeezed between the extremes into relative impotence.

If the National Rally wins an absolute majority, it is expected to take over as prime minister and appoint cabinet members, limiting Macron's powers, although he would remain president.

Projections from several polling stations suggested that the National Rally would win between 240 and 310 seats in the runoff for the 577-seat National Assembly; the New Popular Front between 150 and 200 seats; and Macron's Renaissance party and its allies between 70 and 120 seats. The intervals are wide because a lot can change in the week before the second round. To obtain an absolute majority a party needs 289 seats.

Macron, whose party and its allies won about 250 seats in the last parliamentary vote of 2022, has been frustrated in his attempts to implement his agenda due to his lack of an absolute majority and his inability to form stable coalitions. Now, with his seats likely to be cut, the situation looks much worse for him.

In a statement immediately after the release of the projections, Macron said that “faced with the National Rally, it is time for a clearly democratic and republican grand alliance for the second round.”

It is not clear whether this is still possible at a time when the National Grouping has the wind in its sails.

Both leaders of the left and Macron's party said they would urge their candidates to withdraw from some election races in which they had finished in third place in the first round. The goal is to avoid splitting the vote and unite in the effort to prevent the far right from obtaining an absolute majority.

“We must unite, we must vote for our democracy, we must prevent France from sinking,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, who led the center-left Socialists in the European elections.

In a separate statement, Mr Macron's party said: “We cannot give the keys to the country to the far right. Everything about their programme, their values, their history, makes them an unacceptable threat that we must fight against “.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, said France had voted “without ambiguity, turning the page on seven years of corrosive power.” She urged her supporters to ensure her protégé, Jordan Bardella, 28, becomes the next prime minister.

Gabriel Attal, 34, once a Macron favorite and now almost certainly the outgoing prime minister after just six months in office, said that “if we want to live up to the French destiny, it is our moral duty to prevent the worst from happening.” He noted that never in its history has the National Assembly been in danger of being dominated by the far right.

Mr Macron’s decision to hold the election now, just weeks before the Paris Olympics, surprised many people in France, not least Mr Attal, who was kept in the dark. The decision reflected a top-down style of government that has left the president more isolated.

Macron was convinced that the dissolution of the National Assembly and elections would become inevitable by October, because his proposal to cut the budget deficit was expected to meet with insurmountable opposition.

“It would have been better to hold the election now,” said an official close to Mr. Macron who requested anonymity in keeping with French political protocol. “By October, an absolute majority for the National Rally was inevitable, according to our polls.”

Of course, the National Rally could now obtain an absolute majority.

In the run-up to the election, Macron sought to invoke every ominous spectre, including a potential “civil war,” to warn people against voting for what he called “the extremes”: the National Rally with its vision of immigrants as second-class and the untamed far-left France with its anti-Semitic outbursts.

He told pensioners they would be left penniless. He said the National Consolidation represented “the abandonment of everything that makes our country attractive and retains investors.” He said the left would tax the vital French economy and close nuclear power plants that provide about 70 percent of the country's electricity.

“The extremes are the impoverishment of France,” Macron said.

But those calls fell on deaf ears because, for all his successes, including cutting unemployment, Mr Macron had lost touch with the people the National Rally had aimed at. Those people, across the country, said they felt disdained by the president and that he didn't understand their struggles.

Looking for a way to express their anger, they clung to the party that claimed immigrants were the problem, even though an aging France needed them. They chose the party, the National Rally, whose leaders did not attend elite schools.

The rise of the National Rally has been steady and inexorable. Founded just over half a century ago as the National Front by Mrs Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Pierre Bousquet, who was a member of a French Waffen-SS division during the Second World War, it has for decades faced an iron barrier to its entry into government.

This was rooted in French shame. The collaborationist Vichy government during World War II deported more than 72,000 Jews to their deaths, and France was determined never again to experience a far-right nationalist government.

Ms. Le Pen kicked her father out of the party in 2015 after he insisted that Nazi gas chambers were a “detail of history.” She rebranded the party and embraced the fast-talking, hard-to-convince Mr. Bardella as her protégé. She also abandoned some of her more extreme positions, including a push to leave the European Union.

It worked, although some principles remained unchanged, including the party’s Eurosceptic nationalism and its determination to ensure that Muslim women are banned from wearing headscarves in public. Also unchanged was its willingness to discriminate between foreign residents and French citizens and its insistence that the country’s crime rate and other ills stem from too many immigrants, a claim some studies have disputed.

Mr Macron, who has a limited term and is due to leave office in 2027, looks set for a difficult three years. How difficult will not be clear until the end of the second round of voting.

It is unclear how he would govern with a party that represents everything he has resisted and deplored throughout his political career. If National Rally gets the prime minister's job, he will be able to set much of the domestic agenda.

Mr Macron has vowed not to step down under any circumstances, and the Fifth Republic president has generally exercised broad control over foreign and military policy. But the National Rally has already indicated that it would like to limit Mr. Macron's power. There is no doubt that the party will try if it gets an absolute majority.

By calling for early elections, Mr. Macron took a huge and discretionary risk. “No to defeat. Yes to awakening, to a leap forward for the Republic!” he declared shortly after making his decision. But as the second round of elections looms, the Republic seems wounded, its divisions lacerating.

Aurelien Breeden contributed to the writing of the report.

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