France reacts to far-right's big wins in first round of snap elections

For many, France seems like a very different place on Monday.

The results of the first round of Sunday's legislative elections showed a deeply fragmented country, with a rising far right winning a record number of votes and the near collapse of President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party.

“The far right at the door of power,” read the cover of the daily newspaper Le Parisien the morning after the first half of the early elections called by Macron.

“Twelve million of our fellow citizens voted for a far-right party that is clearly racist and anti-republican,” the left-wing newspaper Libération said in an editorial, referring to Marine Le Pen's National Rally party. “The head of state threw France under the bus, the bus continued without slowing down and is now parked in front of the gates of Matignon” – the prime minister's office.

If the National Rally obtains an absolute majority in Sunday's run-off, Macron will be forced to appoint a prime minister from among its ranks, who will in turn form a cabinet.

There was a sense of frustration and disbelief at the political downfall of Mr Macron’s party, which with its allies had the most seats, but not an outright majority, in the National Assembly. That centrist coalition came in third in the first round of the two-round election. Only two of its candidates, and none of its ministers running for seats, won enough votes to be re-elected without a runoff for their positions, compared with 37 members of the far-right Rassemblement National and 32 from the coalition of leftist parties called the New Popular Front, which came in second.

First-round voting results don’t usually provide a reliable projection of how many parliamentary seats each party will win. But National Rally now looks very likely to be the biggest force in the powerful National Assembly. The question is whether it will win enough seats to secure an outright majority.

If this does not happen, the National Assembly will most likely be ungovernable, with Macron's centrist party and its allies squeezed between the right and the left and with significantly reduced power.

“End of an era,” was the headline on the front page of Les Echos, the main business newspaper.

“When historians look back on the dissolution, they will have only one word: disaster!” declared an editorial in the conservative daily Le Figaro.

“Emmanuel Macron had everything, or almost everything,” he continues. “He lost everything.”

On the ground, the reaction to the vote reflected the country's divisions. In the North, considered a stronghold of the far-right National Rally, there was jubilation.

“I'm going to party all night,” said Manuel Queco, 42, an entrepreneur, at a local hall in the town of Hénin-Beaumont, where Mrs. Le Pen received one round of congratulations after another on Sunday evening. she after being elected outright in her own race. As the crowd of National Rally supporters broke into a round of the national anthem, Mr. Queco raised his glass of champagne. “I've been waiting for them to win since I was 18.”

In Paris, the first-round results revealed an electoral map that had almost completely obscured the Rassemblement National, but was split between the New Popular Front and the president's party. However, the prevailing sentiment on the Place de la République, where thousands of left-wing supporters gathered Sunday evening, was one of grief and commiseration.

“I never thought I’d see something like this in my lifetime: the far right running the country,” said Camille Hemard, 50, a Latin, Greek and French teacher at an advanced preparatory college. She had brought her 16-year-old daughter along to seek solace in the crowd dancing and chanting “Everybody Hates Fascists.”

She added: “I hoped my children wouldn't know.”

Official results published by the Interior Ministry showed the National Rally and its allies winning about 33 percent of the vote. Mr Macron's centrist Renaissance party and its allies won about 20 percent, and the New Popular Front won about 28 percent of the vote.

From radio, television and news sites, pollsters have reminded us that not everything is decided. Only 76 of the country's 577 legislative seats were won outright. For the remaining 501 there would be a battle this week, until the final vote on Sunday. The question many were asking was how many candidates would drop out of the three-way race in a strategic move to prevent the far right from winning.

In French politics this is known as forming a “republican front” or dam, although this strategy has frayed considerably in recent years.

“Dam” is the headline in the editorial of the far-left newspaper L'Humanité. “Disaster has never been so close,” wrote Sébastien Crépel, a publisher. “There is still time to stop this.”

The euro and the French stock market rallied on Monday on optimism that the eurosceptic National Rally, despite its landslide victory, might not win an absolute majority in the second round. Investors are now betting that the most likely outcome on Sunday is a paralyzed parliament in which neither the far right nor the left can win a majority.

But that optimism may not last long. Economists warn of a debt crisis if a paralyzed government fails to rein in France’s finances, or if the National Rally wins an absolute majority and embarks on a spending spree to make good on costly economic promises to voters.

While left-wing coalition leaders had promised that their third-place candidates would withdraw to prevent a Rassemblement National candidate from winning the seats, the message from the presidential camp was mixed.

Gabriel Attal, the young prime minister whose days in office are most likely numbered, announced that there was a “moral duty” to “prevent the National Rally from having an absolute majority.” Other key members of Mr Macron’s centrist alliance, however, were more speculative, with one saying that decisions on which candidates would withdraw would be made on a region-by-region basis. And former prime minister Édouard Philippe called for a blockade not only of the far right but also of the far-left France Unbowed party, a member of the left-wing coalition.

“On Sunday, Macron's party once again lacked clarity and was unable to give clear instructions,” wrote Solenn de Royer, a columnist for the country's main newspaper, Le Monde.

For the far right, the first round was a clear invitation to redouble their efforts to promote their view that the country is overrun by immigration and plagued by crime.

In an open letter to the French, the president of the Rassemblement National, Jordan Bardella, announced that the country can now choose between his party, which he says will restore order and respect, and the left-wing coalition, which he says poses “an existential threat to the nation.”

“The fate of France cannot be entrusted to these arsonists, who embrace a strategy of permanent conflict,” he wrote.

Le Figaro's editorial offered readers a similar choice, stating that the National Rally's agenda was “certainly worrying in many respects, but in front of them we find: anti-Semitism, Islamo-leftism, class hatred, fiscal hysteria.”

For the left, the existential threat was clearly the coming to power of the far right for the first time since the collaborationist Vichy regime during the Second World War.

“All the people like me who are in the middle will have to choose one extreme,” said Hawa Diop, 25, who had arrived at the Place de la République with two friends on Sunday after a day of shopping. All three had immigrant parents from North and West Africa and felt threatened by the far-right's anti-immigration policies and a long-term plan to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public.

“We still hope that doesn't happen,” he said. “Fingers crossed.”

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting from Hénin-Beaumont, France, and Councillor Liz from Paris.

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