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

For many, France seems like a completely 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 gates of power,” read the cover of Le Parisien newspaper, the morning after the end of the first half of the early elections called by Mr. 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 Rassemblement National obtains an absolute majority in Sunday's run-off, Macron will be forced to appoint a prime minister from within it, who will in turn form a government.

There has been a sense of whiplash and disbelief at the political collapse of Macron's party, which with his allies had the most seats, but not the absolute majority, in the National Assembly. That centrist coalition came in third place in the first round of the two-round election race.

Only two of its candidates – and none of its ministers running for seats – won enough votes to be re-elected without a run-off for their positions, compared to 37 members of the far-right National Rally and 32 of the Democratic Party. coalition of left-wing parties called the New Popular Front, which came second.

The results of the first round of voting do not usually provide a reliable projection of how many parliamentary seats each party will win. But it now seems very likely that the National Rally will become the largest force in the powerful National Assembly. The question is whether it will win enough seats to secure an absolute 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,” reads the front page of Les Echos, the leading business daily.

“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 continued. “He lost everything.”

On the ground, the reaction to the vote reflected the country’s divisions. In the north, seen as a stronghold of the far-right National Rally, there was jubilation.

“I’m going to party all night,” said Manuel Queco, 42, a contractor, at a local hall in the town of Hénin-Beaumont, where Ms. Le Pen was receiving round after round of congratulations on Sunday night after being directly elected in her own riding. As the crowd of National Rally supporters erupted in 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 life: 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.

On radio, television and news websites, pollsters reminded people that not everything was decided. Only 76 of the country’s 577 legislative seats were won outright, and most of them went to the major parties. A battle for the remaining 501 seats would rage this week, leading up to the final vote on Sunday. The question on many’s minds was how many candidates would withdraw from the three-way races in a strategic move to prevent the far right from winning.

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

“Dam” declared the headline of the editorial of the far-left newspaper L’Humanité. “Disaster has never been so close,” wrote Sébastien Crépel, an editor. “There is still time to stop it.”

The euro and French stock markets 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 hung 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 vowed that their third-place candidates would withdraw to prevent a National Rally candidate from winning 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 decisions about which candidates would withdraw would be made on an area-by-area basis. And former prime minister Édouard Philippe has made a call to block not only the far right, but also 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, in the country's main newspaper, Le Monde.

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

In an open letter to the French, the president of the National Rally, Jordan Bardella, announced that the country now has a choice between his party, which he says will restore order and respect, and the left-wing coalition, which he says represents “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 presents a similar choice for readers, stating that the agenda of the National Rally is “certainly worrying in many ways, but in the face of them: 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 an extreme,” said Hawa Diop, 25, who had arrived at the Place de la République with two friends after a day of shopping on Sunday. All three had parents who had immigrated 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.”

Segolene Le Stradic contributed a report from Hénin-Beaumont, France, and Councillor Liz from Paris.

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