France's far right performs strongly in first round of elections, poll suggests

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

Pollsters’ projections, usually reliable and based on preliminary results, suggested the party would win about 34 percent of the vote, far ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party and its allies, who won about 22 percent, placing them in third place.

A coalition of left-wing parties called the New Popular Front, ranging from moderate Socialists to the far left of France Indomitable, was projected to win about 29 percent of the vote, buoyed by strong support among young people.

Turnout was high, around 67 percent, compared to 47.5 percent in the first round of the last parliamentary election in 2022, demonstrating the importance voters attach to early elections. To many, it seemed that nothing less than France’s future was at stake with a far-right party long considered ineligible for high office because of its rising extreme views.

The two-round election will conclude with a runoff on July 7 between the leading parties in each constituency.

The result of Sunday's voting does not provide a reliable projection of the number of parliamentary seats each party will win. But it now seems very likely that the National Rally will become the largest force in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament where most of the power resides, although not necessarily with an absolute majority.

The Home Office's final findings are not expected to be published until Monday.

For Macron, now in his seventh year as president, the vote was a major setback after he had bet that the National Rally’s victory in the recent European Parliament elections would not be repeated. There was no obligation to plunge France into summer turmoil with a hasty vote, but Macron believed it was his democratic duty to test French sentiment in a national vote.

The first round of voting suggested that the most likely outcomes now are either an absolute majority for the National Rally or an ungovernable National Assembly. In the second scenario, there would be two large blocs on the right and left opposing Mr. Macron, and his much-diminished centrist party would be squeezed between the extremes into relative helplessness.

If the National Rally wins an absolute majority, it is expected to take over the office of prime minister and appoint cabinet members, limiting Macron's powers, although he would remain president.

Projections from several polling stations suggested that the National Rally would win between 240 and 310 seats in the runoff for the 577-seat National Assembly; the New Popular Front between 150 and 200 seats; and Macron's Renaissance party and its allies between 70 and 120 seats. The intervals are wide because a lot can change in the week before the second round. To obtain an absolute majority a party needs 289 seats.

Mr Macron, whose party and its allies have held about 250 seats since the last parliamentary vote of 2022, has been frustrated in his attempts to implement his program by his lack of an absolute majority and his inability to form stable coalitions. Now, with his seats likely to be cut, the situation looks much worse for him.

In a statement released shortly after the projections were released, Macron said that “faced with the National Rally, it is time for a great alliance, clearly democratic and republican, for the second round.”

It is unclear whether this is still possible at a time when the National Rally has the wind in its sails.

Both leaders of the left and those of Mr. Macron's party said they would urge their candidates to withdraw from some constituency elections in which they had placed third in the first round. The goal is to avoid splitting the vote and unite in an effort to prevent the far right from gaining an absolute majority.

“We must unite, we must vote for our democracy, we must prevent France from sinking,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, who led the center-left Socialists in the European elections.

In a separate statement, Mr Macron's party said: “We cannot give the keys to the country to the far right. Everything in their program, their values, their history, makes them an unacceptable threat that we must fight against.”

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

Gabriel Attal, 34, once Macron's favorite and now almost certainly outgoing prime minister after just six months in office, said that “if we want to live up to France's destiny, it is our moral duty to prevent the worst from happening.” He noted that never in its history has the National Assembly been in danger of being dominated by the far right.

Macron's decision to hold elections now, just weeks before the Paris Olympics, has surprised many people in France, not least Attal, who has been kept in the dark. That decision reflects a top-down style of governance that has left the president more isolated.

Macron was convinced that the dissolution of the National Assembly and elections would become inevitable by October, because his proposal to cut the budget deficit was expected to meet with insurmountable opposition.

“It was better to hold the election now,” said an 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 polls.”

Of course, the National Rally could now obtain an absolute majority.

In the run-up to the election, Macron sought to invoke every ominous spectre, including a potential “civil war,” to warn people against voting for what he called “the extremes”: the National Rally with its vision of immigrants as second-class and the untamed far-left France with its anti-Semitic outbursts.

He told pensioners they would be left penniless. He said the National Consolidation represented “the abandonment of everything that makes our country attractive and retains investors.” He said the left would tax the vital French economy and close nuclear power plants that provide about 70 percent of the country's electricity.

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

But those appeals fell on deaf ears because, for all his successes, including reducing unemployment, Macron had lost touch with the people the National Rally appealed to. Those people, across the country, said they felt criticized by the president and that he did not understand their struggles.

Looking for a way to express their anger, they latched onto the party that said immigrants were the problem, despite aging France's need for them. They chose the party, the National Rally, whose leaders did not attend elite schools.

The rise of the National Rally has been steady and inexorable. Founded just over half a century ago as the National Front by Mrs. Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Pierre Bousquet, who was a member of a French division of the Waffen-SS during World War II, it has faced decades an iron barrier against his entry into government.

This was rooted in French shame. The collaborationist Vichy government during World War II deported more than 72,000 Jews to their deaths, and France was determined never to experience a far-right nationalist government again.

Ms Le Pen kicked her father out of the party in 2015 after he insisted that the Nazi gas chambers were a “detail of history”. She renamed the party and embraced Mr. Bardella, who was easy to talk and difficult to convince, as her protector. She has also abandoned some of her most extreme positions, including a push to leave the European Union.

It worked, although some principles remained unchanged, including the party's Eurosceptic nationalism and its determination to ensure that Muslim women are banned from wearing headscarves in public. Also unchanged is his willingness to discriminate between foreign residents and French citizens and his insistence that the country's level of crime and other ills stem from too many immigrants, a claim that some studies have disputed.

For Macron, whose mandate is limited and is due to leave office in 2027, there appear to be three difficult years ahead of him. How difficult that is won't be clear until the end of the second round of voting.

It is unclear how he would govern with a party that represents everything he has resisted and deplored throughout his political career. If the National Rally wins the prime ministership, it will be able to shape much of the national agenda.

Mr Macron has vowed not to resign under any circumstances, and the president of the Fifth Republic has generally exercised broad control over foreign and military policy. But the National Rally has already indicated it would like to limit Mr Macron's power. There is little doubt the party will try to do so if it wins an absolute majority.

By calling early elections. Macron took a huge and discretionary risk. “No to defeat. Yes to awakening, to the leap forward of the Republic!” he declared shortly after making his decision. But as the second round of elections approaches, the republic appears wounded and its divisions are lacerating.

Aurelien Breeden contributed to the report.

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