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France's National Rally leads in polls as it tries to shed 'far right' label

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This Sunday, the French will head to the polls for the first round of voting to elect a new Parliament. President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the National Assembly and called the snap election after the far-right finished first in EU parliamentary elections earlier this month. Historically, the French have come together to block the far-right from power, but things may be different this time, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Tens of thousands turned out for rallies across France, calling for the usual barrage or roadblock against the far right. Despite the jaunty music at the Paris demo, 24-year-old Hugo Fitessi says he's scared to death by the rise of the far-right.

HUGO FITESSI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: I studied history, and it reminds me of what happened in the 1930s in France and Germany, he says. We have to stick together again in front of this threat. In 2002, when the far-right party's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round of the presidential election, voters from across the political spectrum turned out to endorse conservative Jacques Chirac to block Le Pen. Chirac won with 82% of the vote. But Le Pen's daughter, Marine, has run the party since 2010, and she's changed more than its name. She's rebranded what's now called the National Rally. Historian Jean Garrigues says her strategy has been effective.

JEAN GARRIGUES: (Through interpreter) This normalization strategy means she has broken with everything that scared people about the party, the antisemitic provocations of her father, talk of leaving the European Union. Today, the party is seen as respectable.

BEARDSLEY: The change is obvious at rallies like this one in the southern city of Perpignan, brimming with well-heeled supporters.

JORDAN BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Jordan Bardella is the party's new young face, and likely France's next prime minister if his party wins a majority. The 28-year-old is smooth talking and smartly dressed. He's attracting young voters in droves. Analysts say French society has also moved right in recent years. Ideas once seen as far-right, like stopping immigration, have gone mainstream. Another thing helping the far-right is the far-left.

JEAN-LUC MELENCHON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: That's Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the populist France Unbowed party, making another angry speech in the French Parliament. Historian Garrigues says Melenchon's insults and invective have coarsened political debate. His attacks on Israel are blamed for a spike in antisemitic incidents. The National Rally party, on the other hand, has staunchly supported Israel, drawing Jewish voters like Jordan Nahoum.

JORDAN NAHOUM: They are the one who condemned really clearly the Hamas attack on 7 October, and I think that's one of the reasons why Jews will vote for them.

BEARDSLEY: He says Jews find the far-left much more frightening. And in a country with Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim communities, he says Le Pen is seen as the best protection from the biggest threat, radical Islam. Cecile Alduy teaches French studies at Stanford University. She says the right is opportunist. She's not buying the transformation.

CECILE ALDUY: When you go to the rallies, you see the supporters. You don't see the platform. So the discourse has changed, and the electoral has widened. It doesn't mean that it has changed its platform and its ideology.

BEARDSLEY: Those haven't changed, she says.

DELPHINE VOIRIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Delphine Voirin, a long-time voter of the mainstream right party, is now running for a parliament seat on the National Rally ticket. She says voters see her party as finally ready to tackle issues like immigration and security.

VOIRIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Dismissing us outright as extreme right," she says, "means the opposition has run out of arguments." The National Rally is polling in first place ahead of the first round of voting, with the second and final round on July 7. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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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.