The stakes are high, the battle is dirty and centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s party is the party to beat. But to a visitor from space, France’s June parliamentary election could look like a competition between the far right and far left.
A month before the first round of voting, the campaign for the 577 seats in the French House of Representatives was brutal. Pressure has mounted since April’s presidential election, when Macron won a second mandate and defeated far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff election to quash her third bid for the job.
The pot bubbled over when Le Pen’s political nemesis, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, formed alliances with a slew of left-wing parties in June, positioning himself to surpass both her and, he hopes, Macron.
So for now, Le Pen sees Melenchon as her main opponent, as she wants to keep her National Rally party politically relevant with a good showing in parliament.
Her party’s campaign slogan, “The Only Opposition to Macron,” attests to its rivalry with the far-left leader.
Melenchon himself, backed by his alliances, has set his sights higher, declaring that he will steal the majority from Macron to become France’s next prime minister – a nomination made only by the president.
Le Pen’s hopes are less lofty: to create a “powerful” parliamentary group — at least 15 lawmakers — that would give her anti-immigration party more speaking time and other privileges so that it can be heard, and harass the powerful.
Le Pen mocks Melenchon as the ‘court jester’ who will never become prime minister. But with enough votes, she told RTL radio this week, Melenchon could turn the National Assembly into a squatters’ heaven of leftist targets, “with defenders of (anarchist) Black Blocs, defenders of burkinis, those who want to disarm the police, those who want to open those prisons because prisons are no fun.”
For the interim president of her party, Melenchon poses ‘a threat to the Republic’.
“I think extremism is on Mr Melenchon’s side today,” Jordan Bardella said at a news conference, using the precise label the French press uses for his own far-right party.
Le Pen and Melenchon have long been political enemies. But for Le Pen, the animosity has clearly deepened with the left-wing alliance Melenchon made with socialists, communists and greens bolstering his hand. Le Pen’s party refused an alliance with upstart far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who stole some well-known figures from her party but ended up with just 7% of the vote.
Paradoxically, as Le Pen finished second in the presidential race, compared to Melenchon’s third, and lifted the far right to an unprecedented electoral feat, her party will enter the parliamentary elections on June 12 and 19 in a weaker position than Melenchon, backed by his alliances. .
The French legislative voting system favors the president and virtually prevents Le Pen’s party from seizing deep into the majority. Only eight National Rally legislators won seats in the last election. Le Pen, who wants to renew her seat, is one of the 569 candidates her party is losing in France.
“It’s a very brutal campaign … At the same time, it’s a campaign where you don’t see any real debate, where many French people have the impression that their daily problems are not being addressed,” said far-right expert Jean-Yves Camera. It’s also, he added, “a rather surreal campaign where Mr Melenchon says ‘I, 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 allied with other centrists.
“This is going to be the toughest campaign,” the president warned his party’s candidates this week. “Our country is divided.”
Division, drama and harsh rhetoric are not new to the French election.
“France is a country where political tradition is extremely divisive,” Camus said. “You have the impression of two parts of the country having difficulty talking.”