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France's far-right party is expected to win, falling short of an absolute majority

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Voting is underway in France in one of the most divisive, high-stakes elections in recent history. Marine Le Pen's far-right party is on the cusp of power for the first time after leading in last week's first-round voting. Today, President Emmanuel Macron's centrist and a far-left coalition will try to keep the hard right from getting a majority in parliament and enacting their agenda.

Since the far-right party's founding in the early '70s, French voters from across the political spectrum have come together to block them. So what's different this time? Let's go to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who's been out at polling places this morning. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hello.

RASCOE: So what have people been telling you?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Paris does not vote for the far right generally, and everyone I spoke to has said they're extremely nervous. They say France is in unknown territory with the far right poised to get power. I spoke to 62-year-old voter Didier Gille (ph). He told me he was shocked that it's come to this. Let's have a listen.

DIDIER GILLE: At the moment, I'm ashamed to be a Frenchman. It's at this point. And if those guys come to power, it's incredible. I cannot find the words. It could be a catastrophe for the country. And not only for the country - for Europe, for Ukraine. We must try to prevent that.

BEARDSLEY: You know, he says the far right doesn't have any real ideas to solve problems. They just want to blame everything on immigration. And he said, fundamentally, it's a racist party that has not changed.

RASCOE: And so why is the right-wing party in France so close to power for the first time since World War II?

BEARDSLEY: Well, this - a lot of voters disagree. They say it has changed. This party was founded in 1972, and they used to be a taboo French party, and they say it's not the same party. And you do see a wider, more mainstream electorate now. And Marine Le Pen has broken, she says, with some of the old taboos of her father's generation like the antisemitism. And the party does actually have the support of some in the Jewish community because they're seen as a bulwark against radical Islam, and Marine Le Pen has been a strong supporter of Israel.

You know, France has also had crises over the last years - economic, social - and Macron has disappointed a lot of people. The National Rally has gained strength outside the big connected cities in rural areas. And I went this week to a town about an hour and a half north of Paris, surrounded by wheat fields called Crepy-en-Valois, where voters heavily supported the hard-right party. And I spoke to 62-year-old Bruno Bourdin (ph), who was in a florist shop. and he said the town is changing and not in a good way. Let's listen to him.

BRUNO BOURDIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: You know, he said, "all the previous politicians have messed things up, and it's time to try something new." He said, "we've never given this party a try. Why not?" He told me Macron had been a catastrophe. He cited that - his raising of the retirement age despite huge protests.

You know, Ayesha, ironically, the populist far left and far right have similar antiglobal capitalism platforms. They support the working class, and they were both against this retirement reform. Bourdin actually used to vote socialist. Now he's voting for the National Rally. He also cited immigration and crime and security as a big problem, and he said the National Rally is tough on these issues.

Other people in the town I talked to who were not voting for the National Rally said, when things aren't going well, people look for a scapegoat, and the far right saying that too much money is being spent on immigration and foreigners is a winning platform.

RASCOE: So what's the latest polling say about the election? And when should we get the results?

BEARDSLEY: The polls say that actually the far right will be blocked from getting an absolute majority, so we're probably going to see three competing mutually detesting parties in a parliament with a weakened president who will no longer have a majority - President Macron. And we will get the results about 8:00 p.m. tonight local time. That's 2:00 p.m. Eastern.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, talking to us from Paris. Thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Ayesha. 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.

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.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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