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What to know about France's high-stakes election, where the far right is gaining ground

Posters with images or names of local candidates for the first round of the 2024 French legislative elections displayed in front of the local town hall in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, Normandy, France, on June 25. France will hold an early legislative election in two rounds, on June 30 and July 7.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto
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Reuters
Posters with images or names of local candidates for the first round of the 2024 French legislative elections displayed in front of the local town hall in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, Normandy, France, on June 25. France will hold an early legislative election in two rounds, on June 30 and July 7.

PARIS — France is about to hold parliamentary elections that are shaping up to be among its most divisive in recent history.

With the first round on Sunday, the rising popularity of the far right ahead of the surprise election is sending shockwaves across Europe and beyond.

President Emmanuel Macron unexpectedly called what’s known as a snap election after France’s far-right nationalists clobbered his centrist party in the country’s vote for European Parliament earlier this month.

Voters, commentators and even some of Macron’s own political allies are saying it’s a big gamble. If Marine Le Pen’s party wins enough seats it could put the far right at the gates of power in France for the first time since the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Here are some of the keys to understanding the election.

When is France’s election?

The first round kicks off Sunday, June 30, and there will be a second round on July 7. Forty-nine million eligible voters are set to choose 577 parliamentarians.

The runoff vote will be less than three weeks before the Olympics. The mayor of Paris, which is hosting the 2024 Summer Games, said Macron’s snap election “spoiled the party.”

French elections usually happen in two rounds. There’s a saying: In the first round you vote with your heart, in the second, with your head. That means second-round choices are often “tactical” — not in favor of a particular candidate per se, but to make sure another one doesn’t win.

Many politicians and voters are thinking hard about tactics as the political center faces major challenges from both the far left and right.

Who is on the right?

The far-right National Rally party has a widening lead in opinion polls going into round one on Sunday.

Politician Marine Le Pen, 55, has sought to reform the National Rally since she took over the movement (formerly the National Front) from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011. She has tried to recast its image to be more acceptable to the French mainstream.

Marine Le Pen, head of the French far-right National Rally party parliamentary group, is surrounded by journalists as she arrives at party headquarters in Paris, the day after French far right win in France's European Parliament elections and the announcement of early legislative elections in France, on June 10.
Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
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Reuters
Marine Le Pen, head of the French far-right National Rally party parliamentary group, is surrounded by journalists as she arrives at party headquarters in Paris, the day after French far right win in France's European Parliament elections and the announcement of early legislative elections in France, on June 10.

“This normalization strategy means she has broken with everything that scared people about the party,” says French political historian Jean Garrigues. That included moving away from her father’s antisemitic provocations (he has multiple convictions for antisemitic comments and belittling the Holocaust) and the push to leave the European Union.

But the party has upheld core, nationalist beliefs about what it means to be French.

The party’s new face is 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who took over from Le Pen as party leader — its first not to bear the family name — in 2022.

Bardella’s youthful charisma, smarts, oratory and social media savvy are helping bring in young people in droves. He has 1.7 million followers on TikTok.

Bardella has promised to tackle immigration, security and the high cost of living, including a vow to dramatically cut taxes on fuel, electricity and gas. But the party has pulled back from some pledges such as lowering the retirement age back to 60.

France's far-right National Rally President Jordan Bardella has his identity papers checked before voting for the European Parliament election at a polling station in Garches, suburb of Paris, on June 9.
Julien De Rosa / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
France's far-right National Rally President Jordan Bardella has his identity papers checked before voting for the European Parliament election at a polling station in Garches, suburb of Paris, on June 9.

Who is on the left?

In second place in polling is a leftist coalition that calls itself the New Popular Front, in reference to the original Popular Front that fought far-right movements and won the French election in 1936.

The coalition’s largest member is the Socialist Party, led by 44-year-old Raphaël Glucksmann.

The New Popular Front has unveiled plans to raise public sector salaries, put price caps on food, gas and electricity, lower the retirement age to 60 and boost measures to fight climate change. It says it would pay for the mounting public spending through a mix of taxes on corporations and the rich.

But that’s raised some questions in a country that’s seen its credit ratings downgraded recently over budget concerns.

To counter the far right, the Socialists, a mainstream left-wing party that has governed France in the past, has allied with the Greens and fringe leftist groups, including the Communists and the France Unbowed party.

France Unbowed’s leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 72, is well-known for his left-wing populism after running for president twice. But he has become increasingly radical and divisive of late, scaring off some undecided voters, according to historian Garrigues.

Mélenchon’s provocations and insults have toughened the political discourse, the historian says. And some of Mélenchon's remarks, including harsh criticism of Israel, has led to accusations of antisemitism.

“It was a difficult decision,” Glucksmann said of the alliance between his Socialists and the hard-line leftist groups. It’s not a marriage of love. We have not erased our deep divisions but created an electoral resistance action unit against the worst-case scenario: the triumph of the far right.”

Raphaël Glucksmann, a French Socialist member of European Parliament, raises his fist at a meeting in support of 2024 legislative election candidate Pascale Got and the New Popular Front leftist alliance, in Blanquefort, southwestern France, on June 22.
Thibaud Moritz / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Raphaël Glucksmann, a French Socialist member of European Parliament, raises his fist at a meeting in support of 2024 legislative election candidate Pascale Got and the New Popular Front leftist alliance, in Blanquefort, southwestern France, on June 22.

Who is in the center?

President Macron’s centrist coalition party, Renaissance, is polling third. Gabriel Attal, the 35-year-old prime minister of France, is a top campaigner touting what he considers as Macron’s successes and defending the party’s stances in favor of the EU and the environment.

As the incumbent, Macron, age 46, often receives blame for anything that has gone wrong over the last seven years, and his approval rating has sunk to 28%.

Since he was reelected to a second term in 2022, losing his absolute majority in parliament, Macron has used executive decrees rather than go through parliament to pass numerous measures, including a contentious retirement reform that raised the age from 62 to 64. This has left many French feeling he is forcing laws upon them.

And Macron has not been able to shake an image of being arrogant and out of touch with ordinary people. Some of the news media call him “Jupiterian” — after the chief Roman god — and it’s not meant as a compliment.

Why did Macron call early elections?

France wasn’t scheduled to have legislative elections until 2027. It’s not that common for a French leader to call an early vote, unlike some of its neighbors in Europe and elsewhere.

But there were calls for early legislative elections in France, especially from National Rally leader Bardella, as the party made a strong showing in the EU parliamentary vote.

Then on June 9, Macron made a stunning announcement: “I have heard your message,” he said to French voters in a televised address. “I am giving you the choice of your legislative future by voting.”

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the press at the end of the European Council Summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on June 28.
Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the press at the end of the European Council Summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on June 28.

“The rise of nationalists and demagogues is a danger to our nation and Europe,” Macron said, and explained he was confident “in the capacity of the French people to make the best choice for themselves and future generations.”

Many say it was a risky move that took nearly everyone, including members of his own party, by surprise.

Parliament speaker Yaël Braun-Pivet, a member of Macron’s Renaissance party, called the dissolution of the National Assembly “a violent act” that abruptly shut down a functioning government.

And some analysts are skeptical that it will work in the government’s favor.

“I think it’s more than likely to backfire,” says Douglas Webber, who teaches political science at French business school INSEAD.

“It’s really quite likely that the Rassemblement National [National Rally] will get either a relative or an absolute majority at the end of the day in the parliamentary elections.”

Could French voters block the far right?

Historically, French voters of various political stripes have come together to stave off a far-right victory. It even has a name: front républicain — republican front.

A notable example was in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen made a surprise advance to the second round of the presidential vote. Left-wing voters came out in droves in support for conservative Jacques Chirac, who went on to win with a whopping 82%.

And more recently, voters who didn't necessarily support Macron have backed him to keep Marine Le Pen from becoming president.

But this time that tradition may not hold.

Many voters no longer view the National Rally as too extreme or as an affront to the French republic’s values of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Some voters say they perceive a greater threat from the left-wing populist groups.

Political analyst Nonna Mayer, a veteran tracker of the far-right in the country, says that for the first time, the proportion of the French who see the National Rally party as a danger for democracy has fallen below the share of those who say it’s not.

“Forty-five percent don't see it as a danger, while 41% do,” she says. “That shows that people think the National Rally can one day be the majority in government.”

Mayer says Le Pen is seen more and more as a representative of the traditional patriotic right, than the far right.

But while the party may have widened its electorate and put forward respectable-seeming reps, critics say its anti-immigration, xenophobic platform has not changed, and parts of the old guard, including members who minimized the Holocaust, are still in low-visibility roles in the party leadership.

What could happen?

A member of the French Communist Party (left) campaigning for the upcoming legislative election talks with a supporter of French President Emmanuel Macron at a market, June 26, in Strasbourg, eastern France. The two-round parliamentary election will take place on June 30 and July 7.
Jean-François Badias / AP
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AP
A member of the French Communist Party (left) campaigning for the upcoming legislative election talks with a supporter of French President Emmanuel Macron at a market, June 26, in Strasbourg, eastern France. The two-round parliamentary election will take place on June 30 and July 7.

So far polls show President Macron’s Renaissance party with 20% of voting intentions. The National Rally is polling at 36% and the New Popular Front at 29%.

Depending which way votes go on Sunday, there could be a second round in which voters have to choose between the left and right extremes.

Whatever the case, there could be a scramble with parties trying to negotiate who gets to govern. There could even be a divided government, known in France as “cohabitation,” in which the president and prime minister are from different parties. That scenario would spell gridlock for France and render Macron a lame duck, unable to push policies through.

The French Constitution does not allow Macron to call for new parliamentary elections before June 2025.

Why does the French vote matter abroad?

The political unease isolates France on the European level and weakens trust between Paris and Berlin, whose cooperation is seen as key to a strong European Union. Practically and symbolically, having a leading EU member — its No. 2 economy — consumed and sidelined by infighting could serve a blow to the 27-country bloc as it faces challenges like the war in Ukraine, climate crisis and immigration.

France is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with a veto, a nuclear power and an important NATO ally of the United States — one of the only European countries, along with the United Kingdom, that has the military power to send large expeditionary forces into conflict zones.

Martin Quencez, head of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, says a divided government between Macron and perhaps a far-right prime minister could hamper France’s voice on the world stage and Western support for Ukraine.

“The differences in terms of foreign policy and vision are enormous,” he says. “That could make it impossible for the prime minister and the president to speak with one voice on any sort of international issue. Which could create chaos at the European and the trans-Atlantic level.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

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.