France elections: Far right seeks to ride momentum of 1st round success

With the ultimate outcome still up in the air, France’s fiercely anti-immigration National Rally and opponents of the long-taboo far-right party scrambled Monday to capitalize on an indecisive first round of voting in surprise legislative elections.

Round one on Sunday propelled the National Rally closer than ever to government but also left open the possibility that voters could yet block its path to power in the decisive round two. France now faces two likely scenarios in what promises to be a torrid last week of high-stakes campaigning.

Strengthened by a surge of support that made it the round-one winner but not yet the overall victor, the National Rally and its allies could secure a working majority in parliament in the final round next Sunday. Or they could fall short, stymied at the last hurdle by opponents who still hope to prevent the formation of France’s first far-right government since World War II.

Both scenarios are fraught with uncertainty for France and its influence in Europe and beyond.

“Just imagine the image of France — the country of human rights, the country of enlightenment — which suddenly would become a far-right country, among others. This is inconceivable,” said Olivier Faure, a Socialist who comfortably held onto his legislative seat.

The far right tapped into voter frustration with inflation and low incomes and a sense that many French families are being left behind by globalization. National Rally leader Marine Le Pen’s party campaigned on a platform that promised to raise consumer spending power, slash immigration and take a tougher line on European Union rules. Its anti-immigration agenda has contributed to many French citizens with immigrant backgrounds feeling unwelcome in their own country.

Getting 289 or more lawmakers in the 577-seat National Assembly would give Le Pen an absolute majority and the tools to force President Emmanuel Macron to accept her 28-year-old protege, Jordan Bardella, as France’s new prime minister.

Such a power-sharing arrangement between Bardella and the centrist president would be awkward and invite conflict. Macron has said he will not step down before his second term expires in 2027.

Getting close to 289 seats might also work for Le Pen. By promising posts in the government, she may win over enough new lawmakers to her side.

A National Rally government in France would be an additional triumph for far-right and populist parties elsewhere in Europe that have steadily carved out places in the political mainstream and taken power in some countries, including Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will hold the European Union’s rotating presidency for the next six months.

But the first round of the French vote was also sufficiently undecided to offer up the alternative possibility that France’s complex, two-round system could also leave no single bloc with a clear and workable majority.

That would plunge France into unknown territory.

However, Le Pen’s opponents still view that scenario as more appealing than victory for her party, which has a history of racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and hostility toward France’s Muslims — as well as historical ties to Russia and a more adversarial attitude toward the EU.

“We are faced with a ‘Trumpization’ of the French democracy,” warned lawmaker Sandrine Rousseau, an ecologist also reelected in round one. “The second round will be absolutely crucial.”

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