French Far Right Scores Big in a First Round of Voting, Polling Suggests

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

Pollster projections, which are normally reliable and are based on preliminary results, suggested the party would take about 34 percent of the vote, far ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party and its allies, which got about 21 percent.

The scores, in a two-round election that will be completed with a runoff on July 7 between the leading parties in each constituency, do not provide a reliable projection of the number of parliamentary seats each party will secure. But the National Rally now looks very likely to be the largest force in the lower house, although not necessarily with an absolute majority.

A coalition of left-wing parties, called the New Popular Front and ranging from the moderate socialists to the far-left France Unbowed, won about 29 percent of the vote, according to the projections. Turnout was very high, reflecting the importance accorded by voters to the snap election, at over 65 percent, compared to 47.51 percent in the first round of the last parliamentary election in 2022.

For Mr. Macron, now in his seventh year as president, the result represented a severe setback after he gambled that his party’s stinging defeat to the National Rally in the recent European Parliament election would not be repeated.

In a statement released immediately after the projections were released, Mr. Macron said that “confronted by the National Rally, it is time for a large, clearly democratic and republican alliance for the second round.”

Whether that was still possible at a moment when the National Rally clearly has the wind in its sails is unclear.

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

Mr. Macron’s decision to hold the election now, just weeks before the Paris Olympics, astonished many people in France, not least his own prime minister, who was kept in the dark. That decision reflected a top-down style of governing that has left the president more isolated.

There was no obligation to pitch France into summer turmoil with a rushed vote, but Mr. Macron was convinced that it was his democratic duty to test French sentiment in a national ballot.

He was also persuaded that a dissolution of the National Assembly and elections would have become inevitable by October, because his proposed deficit-cutting budget was expected to meet insuperable opposition.

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

Of course, the National Rally might end up with an absolute 289-seat majority in the 577-seat Parliament when the second round of voting is held one week from now. Mr. Macron, whose party and allies have held about 250 seats since the last parliamentary vote in 2022, has been frustrated in his attempts to achieve his agenda by his lack of an absolute majority and inability to form stable coalitions.

In the run-up to the election, Mr. Macron tried every threatening specter, including a potential “civil war,” to warn people off voting for what he called “the extremes” — the National Rally with its view of immigrants as second-class and the far-left France Unbowed with its antisemitic outbursts.

He told pensioners they would be left penniless. He said the National Rally represented “the abandonment of all that forms the attractiveness of our country and retains investors.” He said the left would tax the vitality out of the French economy and shut down the nuclear power stations that provide about 70 percent of the country’s electricity.

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

But those appeals fell on deaf ears because, for all his accomplishments including the slashing of unemployment, Mr. Macron had lost touch with the people to whom the National Rally appealed. His centrist movement, once dominant, has suffered a severe defeat.

Those people, across the country, felt talked down to by the president. They felt he did not understand their struggles. They felt he pretended to listen, but not more. Looking for a way to express their anger, they latched onto the party that said immigrants were the problem, for all an aging France’s need for them. They chose the party, the National Rally, whose leaders did not go to elite schools.

The rise of the National Rally has been steady and inexorable. Founded a little more than a half-century ago as the National Front by Ms. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and by Pierre Bosquet, who was a member of a French division of the Waffen-SS during World War II, it faced for decades an ironclad barrier against its entry into government.

This was rooted in French shame. The collaborationist Vichy government during World War II had deported more than 72,000 Jews to their deaths and France was determined that never again would it experiment with an extreme-right nationalist government.

Ms. Le Pen threw her father out the party in 2015 after he insisted that the Nazi gas chambers were a “detail of history.” She renamed the party and embraced the smooth-talking and hard-to-ruffle Mr. Bardella as her protégé. She also dropped some of her most extreme positions, including a push for leaving the European Union.

It worked, even if certain tenets remained unchanged, including the party’s euro-skeptic nationalism. Also unchanged was its readiness to discriminate between foreign residents and French citizens, and its insistence that the country’s crime level and other ills stem from too many immigrants, a claim that some studies have challenged.

For Mr. Macron, who is term limited and must leave office in 2027, a difficult three years appear to stretch before him. Just how difficult will not be clear until the second round of voting is over. He might, it seems, be remembered as the president who allowed the far right to enter the highest offices of government.

How he would govern with a party that represents all he has resisted and deplored throughout his political career is unclear. If the National Rally gets the prime minister’s job, for which Mr. Bardella has been lined up, it will be in position to set much of the domestic agenda.

Mr. Macron has vowed not to resign in any circumstance, and the president in the Fifth Republic has generally exercised broad control over foreign and military policy. But the National Rally has already indicated it would want to limit Mr. Macron’s power. There is no doubt that the party will try if it gains an absolute majority.

Mr. Macron took an enormous, discretionary risk. “No to defeat. Yes to awakening, to a leap forward for the Republic!” he declared shortly after his decision was made. But as the second round of the election looms, the republic looks wounded, its divisions lacerating.

Aurelien Breeden contribiuted reporting.

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