France braces for ‘high drama’ run-offs as Le Pen’s far right eyes power

With the far right seemingly headed for victory, voters on the left and in the centre feel on edge.

People gather to protest against the French far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally - RN) party, at Place de la Republique, following results in the first round of the early 2024 legislative elections, in Paris, France, July 3, 2024. REUTERS/Yara Nardi
People protest against the French far-right National Rally party at Place de la Republique in Paris [Yara Nardi/Reuters]

Paris, France – France is preparing to head to the polls again for a second round of voting for the National Assembly.

After his party’s defeat by the far right in the recent European Parliament vote, President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the parliament and called for two rounds of snap elections.

In the first, the far-right National Rally (RN) party emerged victorious with more than 29 percent of the vote.

Protests have again swept the country as demonstrators call for voters to turn out on Sunday against the party formerly known as the National Front.

In Paris on Wednesday, people marched from Place de la Republique to the National Rally’s headquarters in the French capital.

“The mood is quite high drama and intense,” said Philippe Marliere, professor of French and European politics at University College London. “It is a mood of mobilisation on the part of all those who don’t want National Rally to get a majority or even win the election.”

Macron’s Renaissance party won only about 20 percent of the vote in the first round. A coalition of left-wing parties, called the New Popular Front, scored higher with 28 percent. The coalition is intended to unite voters against the nationalist and anti-immigrant RN party, led by Marine Le Pen.

Danielle Barron moved to France from the United States more than 20 years ago, just after Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, in a presidential run-off.

Her children were born in France, and the family became French citizens four years ago. Barron has been voting in France ever since.

“I immigrated to France six months after the 2002 [US] elections full of hope and convinced that I was fleeing a broken democracy entrenched in institutionalised racism and quickly spiralling towards a far-right regime. I never imagined that 22 years later, I would be facing the same fears in my adoptive country,” Barron told Al Jazeera.

Although the results of the first round were not surprising, voters on the left are worried they are running out of options against the RN.

“Mobilising the left, forming a coalition and a surge of voters is no longer enough. The far right still won, which is a bit depressing,” Baptiste Colin, a 29-year-old theatre producer from Lyon, told Al Jazeera. “I am still happy to see the Popular Front and parties who have united or candidates who have [stepped down] to not split the vote.”

Voter turnout in the first round was high – nearly 68 percent, compared with 47.5 percent in the 2022 parliamentary elections. More than 70 candidates who scored a majority were elected outright in the first round. The others head to run-offs with the top two or three parties in every constituency.

“Confronted by the National Rally, it is time for a large, clearly democratic and republican alliance for the second round,” Macron said in a statement after the results of the first round.

But many who support Macron’s Renaissance party are not willing to back a Popular Front candidate for the second round, even with the president’s party trailing behind.

“Macron voters could determine the election. They have the chance to block the RN, but I am worried it is too late and that Macron voters are not ready to vote for the left. There is still rhetoric equating the left with the far right in terms of extremist policies,” Colin said.

In the run-offs, the centre could band together with the existing left coalition so there are no three-way races splitting the non-RN vote.

“Withdrawals are essential. Without withdrawals, if you have three candidates, voters do not vote strategically. Voters tend to remain loyal to their candidate,” Marliere said. “But it is not a question of voting for an opponent. It’s a question of using that vote to defeat the National Rally.”

‘When you give power to the far right, you never know when they will give it back’

Although the results of the first round cannot predict the final distribution of the 577 open parliamentary seats, the RN looks poised to win a relative majority in the National Assembly. Such an outcome would bring the far-right party to power electorally for the first time in French history – 80 years after the collaborationist Vichy regime made a wartime alliance with the Nazis.

“We have never been so close to having a party funded on xenophobia, racism, with ties to Nazi collaborators right at its origin, come to power. This second round is crucial because it will give the direction of this country for the next couple of years, if not for the next generation,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French researcher in comparative law at the University Toulouse Capitole, told Al Jazeera.

“I’m not exaggerating by saying the very foundation of our Republic is on very shaky ground,” she said. “The far right is not a normal party. When you give power to the far right, you never know when they will give it back.”

If the RN wins an absolute majority, Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s protege, could become prime minister.

With Bardella’s help, the far right has claimed a significant chunk of young voters; 25 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for the RN in the first round, according to a recent poll, more than double the number from two years ago.

“There’s hype around the RN. Bardella is young and on TikTok, and there is this idea that it is cool to vote for the RN, whereas before it was considered old-fashioned,” Colin said.

Daniel Szabo, a 48-year-old French-Hungarian English literature and translation professor in Brittany, said: “People are not even voting for the candidate. They are voting for Bardella for prime minister, hoping their vote will get him to an absolute majority. But most of the local candidates are not good.”

Locally, Szabo observed the far right’s foothold growing in this election cycle.

“Brittany has always been more open and voted less for the RN,” he said. “But for the first time, the RN has been first in a lot of constituencies. I think it’s Macron’s fault. He has been too arrogant. He’s very clever, but he has not done a good job.”

In France, the prime minister guides the domestic agenda, meaning Bardella could have ample opportunity to make much of the RN’s hardline agenda into policy.

“They’d be able to be in a position to pass virtually all kinds of legislation,” Marliere said.

Some of Bardella’s proposals include denying convicts access to public housing, halting free medical treatment for undocumented immigrants except in emergencies, ending automatic citizenship rights at age 18 for children born in France to non-French parents and slashing France’s contributions to the European Union by 2 billion euros ($2.16bn).

“The RN is making all the promises people want to hear with the easy political trick to put the blame on immigrants, especially Arab immigrants,” Szabo said.

Ondine Debre, a 44-year-old who splits her time between the Loire Valley and Paris, said she worries about the state of the country if the RN wins anything close to a majority.

“Many people in France doubted that the far right could arrive in power, but we now realise that a lot of people do not feel heard in the current political system. I hope that the parties on the left and centre also realise this. We need cohesive humanist and democratic values,” she said. “The RN is a threat to many civil liberties, not only for multinational citizens, but for all French people.”

Source: Al Jazeera