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France braces as election campaign begins with a bang

Ella Joyner in Paris
June 13, 2024

The French public faces a historic choice in the upcoming snap elections, potentially boosting the far right into power. Campaigning began frantically, with protests and a barricade at the Republican party headquarters.

Emmanuel Macron holding up his right hand while speaking at a press conference in Paris
Emmanuel Macron addressed the recent decision to hold snap elections at a press conference in ParisImage: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

France's major broadcasters were lining up behind an unmarked door on Wednesday to talk to Laure Lavalette, the French National Assembly deputy and spokesperson for the far-right National Rally (RN), outside her party's headquarters near Paris's political district.

"France is on its knees," she told the TF1 television network without missing a beat. Lavalette, who has represented Var, a conservative southeast French province, since 2022, was at ease and in demand.

Her eurosceptic, anti-immigration party scored such a high result in the EU elections last week that pro-business, centrist President Emmanuel Macron immediately called snap legislative elections starting at the end of June.

Les Republicains party leader Eric Ciotti surrounded by television cameras and journalists in central Paris
Eric Ciotti was ejected from his own Republican party on WednesdayImage: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

Republicans and National Rally: A dangerous liaison

Lavalette's remarks came as the Republican (LR) party, France's mainstream right-wing party built on the legacy of World War II hero Charles de Gaulle, ousted its leader, Eric Ciotti, for appealing for an electoral alliance with the National Rally.

Republican politicians were outraged by the prospect of working with RN, a party founded by homophobic, antisemitic and xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen. Party leaders summoned Ciotti for a hearing to get him to step down. In scenes fit for a political thriller, the party president then sealed off Republican headquarters in central Paris, reportedly ordering staff to evacuate.

When DW visited the site, dozens of journalists were camped outside on the Place du Palais Bourbon, right next to the currently closed National Assembly. It was unclear whether Ciotti was still inside. Before the day was out, Ciotti had been expelled from his own party, though he contested the legality of that decision.

Blue doors closed at the headquarters of Les Republicains political party
Doors at the Republican party's headquarters in Paris were sealed as president Eric Ciotti met with other party leadersImage: Magali Cohen/Hans Lucas/AFP/Getty Images

In response to the turmoil, Lavalette was also defiant. "I think they haven't learned their lessons about what killed this party," she told DW. "The [Republican] party's base, its activists, its supporters absolutely want … this circumstantial alliance with the National Rally."

News of the potential alliance between the once-fringe National Rally and the traditional Republicans made waves around Europe.

Germany's CDU party threatened to remove the Republicans from its center-right political family in the European Parliament, the European People's Party.

"If the French [Republicans] really do take this path to the right, there will no longer be a place in the EPP for this once proud party, which is marginalizing itself through such ingratiation," Juergen Hardt, a member of Germany's parliament, wrote on X.

Is Macron's big bet paying off?

Events have been unfolding fast in French politics. Macron's gamble is a bid to regain control after his Renaissance party scored just 15% compared to National Rally's 31%.

His own position as president is safe. He was re-elected in 2022, seeing off National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen, who has tried to clean up the extremist image associated with her father Jean-Marie. At stake is control of parliament, where Macron's party lost its majority in 2022, and the premiership, which could be handed to National Rally leader Jordan Bardella if RN wins.

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella standing on stage at National Rally even after the European elections
Marine Le Pen handed National Rally leadership to Jordan Bardella, but she is still tipped to run for the presidency again in 2027Image: Sarah Meyssonnier/REUTERS

Macron is aiming to build a broad centrist working coalition including the Republicans, a party of several former French presidents, including Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, but that won just 7% of French votes in the EU poll.

The current president has presented this election as a simple choice for the French people: extremism or moderation. With a Republican-National Rally alliance now off the table, his risky strategy might just be working.

"Since Sunday night, the masks are falling off," Macron said Wednesday in a public address before Ciotti's expulsion. "The republican right, at least its leader, has for the first time made an alliance with the far right," he said.

But Macron's appeal to the other side of the spectrum seems not to have landed. Disparate French left-wing parties promptly announced plans for an alliance dubbed Popular Front, rapidly putting aside stubborn differences that saw the previous leftist grouping NUPES implode last year.

Right-wing alliance in France: DW's Sonia Phalnikar

Macron quickly slammed the center left for teaming up with the far left, which he charged was "guilty of antisemitism and anti-parliamentarianism," an apparent reference to the controversial leader of France Unbowed (LFI), Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Whirlwind weeks ahead

With the far right looking closer to governing France than at any time since the Nazi German occupation of World War II, activists like those at the campaign group SOS Racisme are organizing.

Protests against the extreme right took place in cities around France on Monday and Tuesday.

"We're calling on people to mobilize," SOS Racisme president Dominique Sopo told DW in an email. "There's nothing inevitable about a far-right victory if those who value democracy, equality and fraternity put their heads together."

Two girls holding up protest signs while standing in a crowd on the Republique square in central Paris
More protests are expected in the weeks to comeImage: Raphael Lafargue/abaca/picture alliance

SOS Racisme is one of a number of organizations helping prepare a major demonstration at Paris' famous Place de la République on Saturday. French labor union confederation CGT has a map marking more than places where gatherings should take place over the weekend.

French public apprehensive

Days into an extremely short campaign season ahead of two rounds of voting on June 30 and July 7, French politicians are already whipped into a frenzy. People on the streets of Paris seem unsure what to expect.

"I have no idea what's going to happen," Bruno, 28 years old and currently unemployed, told DW. "I reckon even Emmanuel Macron himself doesn't really know what's going to happen." Generally things feel a lot more tense these days, with lots more protests in Paris, many of them aggressive, he says.

Ammar, a 69-year-old hotelier working near Gare du Nord train station, says can't understand why Macron would call the elections to take place just weeks before the Paris Olympics kick off in late July.

But he does know what he thinks about the party that won last week's EU elections. "The National Rally, they're like snakes. They may shed their skins from time to time, but underneath it all, they always stay the same."

Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp