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France's far right is gaining momentum for the first time since World War II

DON GONYEA, HOST:

France's far right is on the verge of taking political power for the first time since World War II. In the past, people from across the political spectrum have band together to block the far right. But the political landscape is shifting in France, so much so that a prominent Jewish figure recently endorsed the far-right National Rally Party. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Paris. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Don.

GONYEA: So remind us why France is holding elections now. I mean, this is all in the wake of the EU elections, right?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. You know, Marine Le Pen's so-called far-right party got 31% of the vote. That's double what Macron got, and nobody else even came close. And he said he could not continue his three years without a clear message from the French people. He said, you go choose your government. So he dissolved Parliament, called snap elections. He's betting the French were just letting off steam in the EU vote and they won't actually pick the far right to run their own country. But it's a huge risk for Macron because the far right could win. You know, we're in the fast-and-furious two-week campaign season. The first round is next weekend. The second round is July 7.

GONYEA: So who's running?

BEARDSLEY: So who is running? We have Macron's Centrist Party and all of the splinter parties because the mainstream left imploded several years ago. They've formed a coalition. Macron is not very popular after being in power seven years. Polls give him a 28% approval rating. You might remember the yellow vest protest that went on for more than a year, and he also pushed through an unpopular raising of the retirement age against protests. So he's angered working-class voters. Meanwhile, immigration is still a problem. Security problems are getting worse, people say. And this is what has fueled the far right all these years.

So we have Le Pen's National Rally Party, which is more popular than ever. And there's a real chance, Don, that the second round runoff in these elections will be a contest between the two extremes, the left and the right. But who is more extreme these days is shifting. Historically, the far-right party is the extremist xenophobic antisemitic party, and the French have always come together to block it. But these days, the far left is seen as increasingly antisemitic.

GONYEA: Is that what's behind this endorsement of the National Rally Party by a prominent member of the French Jewish community?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. This person is Serge Klarsfeld. He's a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi hunter. He and his wife literally spent their lives hunting down Nazis across the world and bringing them to justice. So he's a huge moral figure in France and beyond. And he spoke this week on television. And he said if it came down to choosing between the two - far left, far right - he had no hesitation. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGE KLARSFELD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He says, "I will vote for the National Rally Party rather than the left. We're confronted with an extreme left that's antisemitic and violently anti-Zionist and a party on the right that has changed and supports our values today." You know, the National Rally Party is not the same party as the one founded by Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the 1970s. She took over in 2010, and she's trying to mainstream it, and she has dedemonized it. That's what they call it. She's broken with the old guard and the old stances like antisemitism. And you see that at the rallies. You see young people, professionals, and there's a new leader, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella. He's brought a lot of them in. And so Marine Le Pen also condemned the attack on Israel by Hamas, October 7, while the far left in France has taken a very hostile attitude towards Israel, is very pro-Palestinian, and critics say it is becoming the new party of antisemitism.

GONYEA: I know you've been out and about talking to voters. What are you hearing from them?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. Many voters are angry that Macron did this - put the country in this situation - and people are also shocked that it's the extremes that may be in the second-round runoff. But as I said, many voters now see the far left as more of a threat than the far right. I spoke to one voter, Jewish voter Jordan Nahoum, and he said if it comes down to it, many Jewish voters like him also wouldn't hesitate in who they support.

JORDAN NAHOUM: I am going to vote without a doubt for the so-called extreme right just because it's a lot less violent. I feel like the extreme left is much more violent than the extreme right nowadays.

BEARDSLEY: France has the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe. He said their biggest worry is radical Islam and antisemitism from the Muslim community. France has had terrorist attacks in recent years, and he says that Marine Le Pen is seen as a bulwark against these extremists.

GONYEA: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Don. 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.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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.