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French elections: Le Pen’s march on power

Marine Le Pen’s clear win underscores her party’s achievement of making a duplicitous surface-level transformation to voters

Supporters fly French flags in Hénin-Beaumont, northern France, after the first round of voting in the general election saw Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National storm into first place. Photo: François Lo Presti/AFP/Getty

Just as the polls predicted, Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella’s anti-immigrant, pro-Putin Rassemblement National stormed to first position in round one of the snap French legislative elections called by president Emmanuel Macron. More than 12 million French voted for the party founded by ex-Waffen SS and Vichy collaborators, on a turnout of 67%. Next week, 28 year-old TikTok influencer Bardella could be prime minister.

The sight of a jubilant Le Pen on national TV, only minutes after the first official results were released, caused shock on the streets of Paris. The victor was surrounded by champagne-quaffing fans chanting “Marine! Marine!” in her fiefdom of Pas-de-Calais where she had been elected in the first round with a resounding 58% of votes. At least six of her party colleagues were also elected outright in the first ballot, alongside several pro-Moscow RN figures. Protesters were gathered around Place de la République, many with Palestinian flags, chanting “racist” and “collaborator”.

Le Pen’s party won more than 33% of the vote. The left wing Nouveau Front Populaire won 28%, and Macron’s Ensemble, the centrist presidential group, almost 21%.

“We have practically wiped out the Macronist bloc,” declared Le Pen with something halfway between a snarl and a smile. “The French people have shown their will to turn the page on seven years of contemptuous and corrosive power”. Soon after she turned to enemy number two, warning voters about “falling into the hands of an extreme left which is violent, antisemitic and anti-republican… with (La France Insoumise leader) Jean-Luc Mélenchon as prime minister”. 

A few minutes later Mélenchon himself appeared on TV screens. He launched into a tirade, beginning with his glee at the “indisputable defeat of Macron”. There was barely a mention of Le Pen.

In perhaps the most remarkable image of the evening, Mélenchon, who is notorious for flirting with Islamist ideologies and says antisemitism in France is “residual”, chose to appear on camera with Rima Hassan. The young freshly elected LFI Euro MP sported a Palestinian keffiyeh around her neck. Hassan is open about her tolerance for the Assad regime and sympathy for Hamas.

Later in the evening, Mélenchon again took the microphone to yell “we want no more war… in Ukraine, or massacres in Palestine”. This only confirmed his pro-Kremlin view that Kyiv should down arms and allow Russia to seize much of Ukraine. 

“A fundamental choice must now be made: either the extreme right or us,” the 72-year-old former Trotskyist bellowed. “There’s nothing left in the middle! We have built a great political force. We are here to change everything in our country!”

Mélenchon the revolutionary wants to squeeze out the moderate voices on the left like Socialist and pro-Ukraine MEP Raphaël Glucksmann. He also wants to make the next week until the July 7 run-off vote about Gaza and, according to critics, hand the election to Le Pen and Bardella, to prepare the way for his presidential run in 2027. “The French left is taken hostage by this man,” said anti-racist activist Patrick Klugman.

The results threw up an unprecedented situation with hundreds of potential three-way races for the run-off. Outgoing prime minister Gabriel Attal urged voters not to allow a single vote for Le Pen’s party, and Le Monde reported that Macron is preparing to share power with an RN government while trying to stop the extreme right from winning the presidency in 2027. 

Le Pen is on a roll, with even her older sister Marie-Caroline looking at election in the rural Sarthe region, after she was parachuted in. The only issue is which of the trailing candidates will drop out. 

The clear win for Le Pen underscored her party’s achievement of making a duplicitous surface transformation, turning into the acceptable and mainstream voice of the disaffected working classes, and so-called champions in the fight against antisemitism and in support of secularism. 

But the same political essence remains. It is based on discrimination against foreigners, dual nationals and Muslims, historic antisemitism and scorn for the values of the French resistance. The fundamentals were exemplified by Bardella’s mocking of his Socialist foe in last week’s debate as a try-hard “Jean Moulin” (the resistance hero tortured and murdered by the Gestapo), and by Le Pen’s claim that the president was only an “honorific” title as head of the army.

In the media, conservative daily Le Figaro confirmed its own rollover into a mouthpiece for the RN, declaring that a vote for LFI was more dangerous than backing Le Pen’s candidates. 

On the left, Libération pleaded with voters to take their responsibilities and keep out Bardella and Le Pen at all costs. “After the shock, form a bloc!” urged the daily in its page one headline.

If only the democratic bloc were not such a blancmange – weak, without structure and ready to fall.

Emma-Kate Symons is a Paris-based journalist and columnist

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