The stakes are high, the fight is ugly, and the party of centrist President Emmanuel Macron is the one to beat. But to a visitor from outer space, France’s June parliamentary elections might look like a contest between the far right and the far left.
One month before the first round of voting, the campaign for the 577 seats in the lower house of the French parliament has been brutal. The pressure has been mounting since April’s presidential election, when Macron won a second term, beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the second round to nullify her third bid for the job.
The pot boiled over when Le Pen’s political nemesis, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, struck alliances with a fringe of leftist parties, positioning himself to outdo her and, wait, Macron, in June.
So for now, Le Pen sees Melenchon as her main opponent as she seeks to keep her Agrupación Nacional party politically relevant by performing well in parliament.
His party’s campaign slogan, “The only opposition to Macron”, attests to his rivalry with the far-left leader.
Melenchon himself, bolstered by his alliances, has set his sights higher, declaring that he will steal Macron’s majority to become France’s next prime minister, a nomination made only by the president.
Le Pen’s hopes are less grandiose: to create a “powerful” parliamentary group — at least 15 lawmakers — that would give her anti-immigration party more time to speak and other privileges so it can be heard and harass the powerful.
Le Pen mocks Melenchon as the “court jester” who will never be prime minister. But with enough votes, he told RTL radio this week, Melenchon could transform the National Assembly into a haven for squatters of leftist causes, “with the supporters of the Black Blocs (anarchists), the supporters of the burkinis, those who want to disarm the police, those who want to open prisons because prisons are not nice.”
For the interim president of her party, Melenchon represents “a threat to the Republic.”
“I think today’s extremism is on Mr. Melenchon’s side,” Jordan Bardella told a news conference, using the precise label favored by the French press for his own far-right party.
Le Pen and Melenchon are longtime political enemies. But for Le Pen the animosity has clearly deepened with the leftist alliance that Melenchon concluded with Socialists, Communists and Greens strengthening his position. Le Pen’s party rejected an alliance with far-right upstart presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who stole some of the party’s known figures from him but ended up with just 7% of the vote.
Paradoxically, while Le Pen came second in the presidential race, compared to Melenchon’s third place, and led the extreme right to an unprecedented electoral performance, her party reaches the legislative elections on June 12 and 19 in a weaker position than Melenchon, backed by his alliances.
France’s legislative voting system favors the president and almost prevents Le Pen’s party from taking a deep hold on the majority. Only eight legislators from the National Group won seats in the last elections. Le Pen, who is seeking to renew his seat, is among the 569 candidates his party fields in France.
“It’s a very brutal campaign… At the same time, it’s a campaign where you don’t see a real debate, where many French people get the impression that their daily problems are not being addressed,” the far-right pundit said. Jean Yves. Camus. It is also, he added, “a pretty surreal campaign with Mr. Melenchon saying, ‘I am prime minister.'”
Macron’s party and its centrist allies have more than 300 seats in the outgoing parliament. Still, his Republic on the Move has changed its name to Renaissance and has allied itself with other centrists.
“This will be the toughest campaign,” the president warned his party’s candidates this week. “Our country is divided.”
Divisions, drama and harsh rhetoric are not new to French elections.
“France is a country where the political tradition is extremely divisive,” Camus said. “You get the impression of two parts of the country that have a hard time talking.”