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French voters reject the far-right

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In a stunning upset that went against poll predictions, a left-wing coalition beat the far right and won the most seats in a new French Parliament. Marine Le Pen's National Rally Party was predicted to be in first place but is now in third, behind the leftist coalition called the New Popular Front and President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party. France is now in uncharted political waters just as it prepares to welcome the world for the Olympic Games. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has been following all of this, and we go to her in Paris. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: So tell us what happened tonight.

BEARDSLEY: Oh, my God. I was out in Paris' Place de a Republique, which is a bastion of the left, and there was just an explosion of joy when the returns came in at 8:00 p.m. Let's listen to what it sounded like.

(CHEERING)

BEARDSLEY: You know, people were stunned. They were crying. They were cheering. They were hugging. They were so relieved. And then crowds started just filling the plaza, and it soon became a big party with barbecues and hot dogs and people singing and chanting anti-fascist slogans. And there's a giant statue in the middle of La Republique, and people had climbed up on it with, you know, horns and waving flags - total joy, yeah.

And I spoke to a young teacher, Georges Hassler. He teaches in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, which has a huge immigrant, multiethnic population. And he said his students were really worried about this. Let's listen to him.

GEORGES HASSLER: And we are feeling great, so it's a great day. It's a great day for democracy. It's a great relievement (ph).

FLORIDO: Yeah. He's talking about relief there. Was this a surprise?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. Oh, very much so. I mean, all the polls suggested that the National Rally, Marine Le Pen's far-right party, would come first. And the only question was, would they get their absolute majority of 289 seats or not? And they had asked voters to give them that so that they could appoint the prime minister, their young leader Jordan Bardella, to be the next prime minister, but it didn't happen. They were beaten by this hastily cobbled-together leftist coalition and with record voter turnout. People told me tonight - 67% turnout, Adrian.

People told me tonight, they got really scared, so they came out. And what really helped as well was a deal between Macron's centrist and the left that if there was a three-way race - there were about 300 of them - one of those parties would drop out so as not to split the anti-far-right vote. And, you know, that's what the French call the Republican Front. It's the front that's always come together to stop the far right. But what was also a surprise was that President Macron's party came in second. Everybody thought he would be last.

FLORIDO: Yeah. So what happens next?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal spoke tonight. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER GABRIEL ATTAL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He said, "a new era has started. Tomorrow, I'm going to be handing in my resignation." But Macron does not have to accept it. Honestly, no one knows what's next. There's no majority in Parliament. Talk shows are going wild tonight. France is in uncharted political waters with three parties, no majority, just as it's about to host the Olympics.

FLORIDO: The snap election was also a surprise for a lot of France's partners. There was also some concern there, wasn't there?

BEARDSLEY: Oh, absolutely. You know, everyone was saying, you know, Macron made this huge gamble and he's going to lose it, and the world was watching. You know, Germany is France's top partner in Europe and in the EU. They were very worried by the prospect of a far-right government. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz even said as much in public, which is a pretty rare thing for a foreign leader to do about an election in another country.

You know, the world was watching, and people knew that. Tonight, they told me that. They said they wanted to show the world that France is not a racist country. It's a country of human rights and liberty. And people held up big signs saying, we are made of the tissues of the world. You know, they're made of waves of immigration, France is. That's what they told me, and even French people who don't vote left, I think they were relieved tonight.

FLORIDO: Well, I've been speaking with NPR's Eleanor Beardsley on an important historic day in France. Thanks.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Adrian. 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.