Thousands protest in France to oppose Le Pen’s far right

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across France Saturday to oppose Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, which is predicted to finish first in the upcoming snap legislative election called by President Emmanuel Macron.

The demonstrators are seeking to call attention to the nationalist party’s policies on human rights, the environment, equal rights and economic matters.

Macron took a massive gamble when he dissolved the legislature on Sunday after his party was trounced by the National Rally in the European Parliament ballot. The move was designed to shore up his support at home, but he opened the door to Le Pen taking control of the French government.

Further complicating matters for Macron, a group of four left-leaning parties agreed to join forces, with polls indicating the coalition could become the second-biggest bloc ahead of the president’s Renaissance party. Because France has a two-round electoral system with a bar to move on to the second, many Renaissance candidates may not even make it to the final election day.

“We’re at a historic moment, at an uncertain time, it’s a bit like a jump into the unknown for our democracy,” Marylise Leon, the general secretary of the union CFDT that’s organizing protests, told France Inter radio Saturday. “When it’s about the far right, we get mobilized.”

As many as 350,000 people are expected to take part in the marches nationwide, according to the French police.

Separately on Saturday, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal unveiled the government’s campaign program, which sought to show continuity with Macron’s agenda, while assuaging the concerns of low-wage workers. Attal, who was initially stunned by Macron’s decision to call the legislative election, emphasized law and order, tax cuts and climate efficiency. 

Macron’s Campaign Issues:
  • Expanding the so-called Macron bonus — a tax-free bonus created in response to the Yellow Vests protests in 2019. Companies would be able to offer as much as €10,000 euros per year per employee, according to the proposed program, up from the current €6,000
  • Exonerate first-time home buyers of notary administrative fees for goods worth as much as €250,000
  • A tax on companies buying back their shares to fund the construction of energy-efficient homes
  • Doubling the number of electric cars available eligible to be leased for €100 euros a day
  • A proposal that 16-year-old offenders should be tried as adults

“People tell me: We don’t want the economic ruin we’re being offered,” Attal said in an interview on France 2 television. “If the projects of the extremes triumphed at the ballot box, around a million jobs would be destroyed.”

The political uncertainty and increasing likelihood the next government will push through costly measures for public finances spooked investors. Government bonds were at the heart of the rout, with the premium that investors demand to own 10-year OATs over German bunds posting the biggest weekly jump on record.

The selloff wiped about $210 billion off the value of French stocks, with banks Société Générale SA, BNP Paribas SA and Crédit Agricole SA — all big holders of government debt — losing more than 10% each.

The left-leaning coalition — dubbed the New Popular Front — ran into its own problems over the weekend as members argued with each other. Some top officials from France Unbowed — the far-left party that joined forces earlier this week with the Greens, Socialists and Communists — lashed out at their leader Jean-Luc Melenchon over the list of candidates they’ll put forth. 

“Jean-Luc Melenchon has settled a score with me,” France Unbowed lawmaker Alexis Corbiere, who was excluded from the candidate list, told the radio network Franceinfo Saturday. “It’s totally petty, petty, a settling of scores, when what’s at stake is preventing the far right from taking power.”

The four left-wing parties differ radically on policy matters, particularly when it comes to issues such as the middle east and the war in Ukraine. So it’s not a given they’ll be able to stick together through two rounds of elections. 

“We can’t lose time tearing ourselves apart,” Francois Ruffin, a candidate for the alliance, told reporters at the start of a march in central Paris. “We have to reassure the country, and we can’t do that by throwing insults at each other.”

He added that Melenchon’s decision to step back from the limelight since Sunday was “good news” and that that must “remain the case so we can succeed in having the most serene, most calm campaign possible.”

Former President Francois Hollande said that he will run in the election in his historic constituency of Correze.

The situation on the left mirrors the turmoil in the conservative Republicans party, which is embroiled in a lawsuit about whether its leader was legally expelled after he tried to form an alliance with Le Pen’s group. 

Paris judges on Friday evening ordered a temporary suspension of Eric Ciotti’s ouster to give him time to file a lawsuit to argue the substance of his case. Ciotti claims he’s still the Republicans president, and his lawyer had argued that rules were broken during the move to kick him out.

Macron has sought to portray his challengers on both the far left and far right as unfit to run the country, and has called both sides “incoherent.”

“They are not ready to govern,” Macron told reporters at the Group of Seven summit in southern Italy. “There are two extreme blocks today who are not responsible, and who are promising gifts to people that are not financed.”

His finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, warned earlier in the week that a victory by the left-wing alliance would lead to economic collapse and the country’s exit from the EU as he put fears over the economy at the center of the campaign.

“Their program is complete madness,” Le Maire said on Franceinfo radio. “It will guarantee downgrade, mass unemployment and an exit from the European Union.”

Officials in the new leftist bloc dismissed Le Maire’s claims regarding their economic program. They say Macron’s tax cuts for wealthy individuals and on capital have left a gaping hole in the public finances. 

Furthermore, it’s unclear the government’s scare-mongering tactics will work, and they’re reminiscent of 2016 warnings against Brexit and Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House.

The National Rally is on course to win as many as 270 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, compared with 90 to 130 for Macron and his allies, according to a projection by pollster Elabe. –BLOOMBERG