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The far right wins the first round of France’s snap election

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron's gamble in calling a snap election has apparently backfired.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

French voters turned up massively Sunday to choose candidates for a new parliament, but they did not choose Macron's party. Their first choice was the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen. Macron's party came in a distant third of three main voting blocs after the left. There will be a second round runoff next Sunday to decide how France's 577-seat legislature will be divided up.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, let's go now to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, who has been following it all. Eleanor, polls had predicted that the far right would lead, so is any of this really a surprise?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, no, A, though Macron clearly hoped until the end that the French would mobilize to support him over the two extremes, which is how he portrayed things in the short campaign leading up to yesterday's vote. And we're told that as his party saw the huge surge in voter turnout yesterday, more than 65%, Macron's camp became hopeful. But as you said, his plan to get a mandate for his last three years in office clearly backfired.

Let's listen to an elated Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right, addressing her supporters shortly after returns came in last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: She says, "democracy has spoken, and the French have placed our party in the lead, practically erasing Macron's bloc in parliament." And then Le Pen added that the French have clearly chosen to turn the page on seven years of what she called corrosive and contemptuous power. The far right now says it must have an absolute majority to be able to put in place its program of getting France back on the rails. So they are gunning for at least 289 seats going into the second round.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So has President Macron said anything?

BEARDSLEY: No. His young prime minister who led the campaign, Gabriel Attal, was put out front. He spoke. Imagine - Macron did not even consult Attal before he dissolved the Parliament in the first place. He was said to have been taken by total surprise, but he played the game. He campaigned hard, and this loss was clearly a huge disappointment. Attal looked glum and very worried when he spoke last night. Let's listen to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIEL ATTAL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He says, "never in our democracy has our parliament risked being dominated by the far right." Attal said, "our objective is clear - to keep the far right from getting majority in the second round and putting in place a dangerous agenda," he called it. And he said, everyone in his party must not give one single vote to the far right.

MARTÍNEZ: So what happens now?

BEARDSLEY: We are heading into a week of furious campaigning with very high stakes. Many are warning that French democracy itself is under threat if the far right gets an absolute majority. So everyone but Le Pen supporters is calling to block what is being called a racist, divisive far right that doesn't share French universal values.

The left came out in second place. They're still hoping maybe they could get the majority. It's not very likely, but let's see. The choice today seems to be between having a parliament where there's no majority - in essence, what's called a hung parliament - or having the far right in power, so a France that's far-right versus a France that's ungovernable, and many clearly prefer the latter.

MARTÍNEZ: What would happen though if the far right does get an absolute majority?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it means that Jordan Bardella, 28-year-old young protege of Marine Le Pen, the new star of the party, is made prime minister. They will put their agenda in place, slowing or stopping immigration, restoring order, as they say.

But no one really knows what to expect. The far-right party has never been in power. It's always been portrayed as the bogeyman. French voters have always band together to keep them out of power. So we are in uncharted waters, and I can tell you I have never seen France more divided than it is today.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thank you.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "MULLED WINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.