17 Jun 2024, 09:24

France begins frenetic campaign after Macron poll gamble

PARIS, June 17, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - France on Monday began less than a fortnight of frenetic election campaigning for snap polls called by President Emmanuel Macron to combat the far right, with star footballer Kylian Mbappe warning the country was at a historic crossroads.

Candidates had until Sunday evening to register for the 577 seats in the lower house National Assembly ahead of the official start of campaigning from midnight for the June 30 first round. The decisive second round takes place on July 7.

The alliance led by centrist Macron, who called the snap polls some three years early after the far right trounced his party in EU Parliament elections, is still lagging way behind with little chance of winning an outright majority itself.

Many in France, including ex-leaders, remain baffled over why Macron took the risk of calling an election that could see the far-right National Rally (RN) leading the government and its leader Jordan Bardella, 28, as prime minister.

One of the most high-profile of the last candidates to register was Marie-Caroline Le Pen, the elder sister of the RN's three-time presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who will stand for the party in the central Sarthe region.

Her daughter Nolwenn Olivier is Bardella's ex-partner.

- 'Young and inexperienced' -

Mbappe, representing France at the Euro 2024 tournament in Germany, said he was "against extremes and divisive ideas" and urged young people to vote at a "crucial moment" in French history.

The striker defended comments made on Saturday by his teammate Marcus Thuram, saying he "had not gone too far" in calling on the country "to fight every day to stop" the RN winning the elections.

"Today we can all see that extremists are very close to winning power and we have the opportunity to choose the future of our country," Mbappe said.

France's men's football team has long been seen as a beacon for diversity in the country. The French Football Federation has urged against "any form of pressure and political use of the French team".

Macron's dissolving of parliament after the French far right's victory in the EU vote has swiftly redrawn the lines of French politics.

A new left-wing alliance, the New Popular Front that takes in Socialists and hard-leftists, faced its first crisis over the weekend after some prominent MPs from the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) party found they had not been put forward to stand again.

But Adrien Quatennens, a close ally of LFI figurehead Jean-Luc Melenchon, withdrew his candidacy which had sparked anger due to a conviction for domestic violence.

On the right, the decision of Eric Ciotti, the leader of the Republicans (LR), to seek an election pact with the RN provoked fury inside the party and a move by its leadership to dismiss him, which a Paris court blocked on Friday.

Adding to the chaos, the LR's executive is now fielding a candidate to stand against Ciotti in his home region of Nice.

Former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper that Ciotti should have consulted the party leadership over the coalition and put it to a members' vote.

He expressed concern that the LR risked just being absorbed into the RN and also questioned the wisdom of backing Bardella as premier.

Bardella has "never been in charge of anything", said Sarkozy, asking: "Can you lead France when you are so young and inexperienced?"

- 'Surprise not enough' -

Macron is this week due to return to the domestic campaign fray from engagements abroad at the G7 summit in Italy and the Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland.

The president has been advised by comrades within his Renaissance ruling party to let the considerably more popular Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, 35, take the lead in the campaign.

But the personal stakes are huge for Macron, who risks becoming a lame duck president until his term expires in 2027, even though he has ruled out stepping down whatever the result of the polls.

Former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who famously bowed out of politics in 2002 after the far-right's Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's father, kept him out of the presidential elections run-off, warned of the perils for Macron.

Jospin, who only speaks in public very rarely, said that Macron had forced France into a "hurried" campaign and was "giving the RN a chance to come to power in France".

"It's not responsible," he told Le Monde, accusing Macron of "arrogance" and witheringly adding that "surprise is not enough to be master of the game".