In a divided France, voters on the left hope to unite against the far right

President Emmanuel Macron is testing the country’s support after a dramatic European Parliament election won by hardliners.

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Paris, France – Across France, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets after President Emmanuel Macron called for snap elections in the wake of his party’s defeat at the hands of the far right in the recent European Parliament vote.

The demonstrations are against both the hard right and Macron’s decision.

In Paris, at Place de la Republique on June 15, people climbed the Marianne statue before following the familiar route from Republique to Nation.

France’s newest wave of rallies was sparked by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party winning 31.4 percent of the vote, led by Jordan Bardella. The coalition under Macron’s Renaissance party won just 14.6 percent.

Justine*, a student in Paris, has been working on campaigns for several candidates on the left.

“The RN is a party of hate based on racism and extremism and capitalism. A regime with the far right is also extremely dangerous for women’s rights,” she told Al Jazeera.

Organisers have been scrambling since Macron called for snap elections.

“No one was expecting this. It takes a lot to organise everything, especially for small candidates. We end up only having 15 days before they have to register. It’s not really democratic,” Justine said.

‘A very, very risky gamble’

By calling for new elections, which will be held in two rounds on June 30 and July 7, Macron is betting on French voters coming out against the far right and setting a new tone – one of better results for the centre in future elections.

“It’s a very, very risky gamble,” said Philippe Marliere, professor of French and European politics at University College London. “He will probably lose that election.”

Macron’s party is unlikely to secure a majority and the nationalist and anti-immigration RN could win even more seats.

If the RN reaches an absolute majority in France’s parliament, the National Assembly, Bardella could become prime minister.

“The remarkable result … confirmed the surge of the far right,” Marliere said. “Never before did the far right get over the 30 percent threshold in a national election.”

For Justine, the French president’s agenda has contributed to “extreme” ideologies becoming normalised.

“Macron is not entirely blameless. He’s enacted policies that align with the far right and I don’t think he is a president of social rights or human rights,” she said.

INTERACTIVE European Union parliamentary elections_1-1718195650
(Al Jazeera)

The RN has a platform against globalisation and immigration, pushing for stricter border control and fewer ecological policies. But in recent years, voting for the RN has become more mainstream across France.

“In this country, the far right has become so mainstream and normalised. What scares me the most is that people are still shocked,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French researcher in comparative law at the University Toulouse Capitole, told Al Jazeera.

Some of Macron’s policies, such as his immigration bill, appeal to traditional far-right views.

“Critics argue that [Macron] has really borrowed from RN textbook policies on immigration, Islam, all the endless culture wars, ‘wokeism’, as the French say,” said Marliere. “People get the feeling that these [ideas] are, in the end, acceptable. People are no longer afraid of voting for the party.”

Beatrice Chappedelaine, a retired school teacher who lives in Normandy, said she is saddened by politics and working conditions in France.

“We shouldn’t be surprised that the RN is on the rise, given the insecurity, poverty and indigence of the current government,” said Chappedelaine, who is in her mid-80s.

Despite her feelings on the state of the country, she will be casting a vote in the snap elections.

“I’ve always voted. For me, it’s a duty,” she said.

While she did not reveal who she would vote for, she said it would not be for the RN or the left.

Meanwhile, experts worry that voter turnout could be low with many away during the holiday season.

Voter turnout in France for the elections for the European Parliament was 51.4 percent.

Young voters had high rates of abstention: 59 percent for 25- to 34-year-olds and 51 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds.

“What worries me is the timing: dissolving the National Assembly when people are going on holidays. Abstention is already very high. The far right won by people not going to vote,” Alouane said.

‘The left could be the real surprise’

The left has formed an alliance, the Popular Front, to try to unite voters.

Its platform vows to increase wages, lower the retirement age from 64 to 60, offer better protections for asylum seekers and climate refugees, and back stronger climate policies.

“The left could be the real surprise in this election,” Marliere said. “It is possible that the left comes second [after RN], all parties of the left now aggregated into this coalition called Popular Front.”

But the coalition does not represent unity.

“The Popular Front is above all an electoral coalition,” said Marliere. “It’s not that suddenly the left is one bloc and has a new name. Certainly not. It’s there to serve one purpose: to field one single candidate per constituency because if they don’t do so, they’ll be eliminated in the first round.”

Baptiste Colin, a 29-year-old theatre producer from Lyon, has reservations about the coalition.

“I think the coalition is possible, but on the left, there is no clear leader. We are missing a strong media personality,” Colin told Al Jazeera.

Women hold a placard that reads: "My France to me is not the same as (the France) of those who vote for RN", as people attend a demonstration organised by feminist organisations to protest against the French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National - RN) party, ahead of upcoming French parliamentary elections, in Paris, France, June 23, 2024. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
French far right leader Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella, president of the French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National – RN) party, leave following a press conference to present policy priorities [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

RN has captured young voters, garnering support from 30 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 28 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in the election on June 9.

“The left does not feel listened to. I voted for Macron in 2022 and against Le Pen, but I feel like he has pushed the RN to become something more respectable. It seems like today he is saying the RN can govern, and we have to choose between the RN and Macron,” Colin said.

Some of France’s biggest influencers on social media have come out against the RN, calling on their followers to vote.

France’s biggest YouTuber, Squeezie, who has 19 million followers, published a post on June 14 saying it was important to “react for the good of all of the country’s citizens against a hateful and destructive ideology”.

Macron’s majority woes

President Macron’s coalition lost its absolute majority in parliament in 2022, hindering efforts to pass domestic reforms.

Since then, his government has resorted to sending through legislation without a vote in parliament using Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, including his controversial retirement bill.

This lack of manoeuvrability to lead as he hoped could be why he decided to dissolve parliament on June 9, according to Marliere.

“It’s been extremely hard for his party to govern, to pass legislation because there’s no absolute majority,” he said. “I think Macron feels that he hasn’t been able really to govern the way he wanted because of that situation. So his room for manoeuvre was very limited. His wings were clipped, so to speak.”

Jacques Chirac, a conservative, was the last president to call for snap elections in 1997, when the left won a majority. He then had to spend five years governing with the left.

Regardless of their political affiliations, French voters are well aware of how critical the coming vote is.

“Historically, the legislative elections have not felt that important. They are not the presidential election, but now they have become essential,” Colin said.

“I know many people who did not vote two weeks ago because they did not feel like it or were out of town, but now will vote because it is so much more important.”

Source: Al Jazeera