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France votes in the first round of its snap elections

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The French vote to elect a new Parliament today is the first round of an election that's looking like one of the most divisive in recent history. The far right is on the cusp of gaining power for the first time since World War II. We go now to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Remind us why the French president called for these elections now.

BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron's party was trounced in European Parliament elections. So he said he was giving the French a chance to decide on their future. Many say he's betting they were letting off steam, and they will not actually choose the far right to run their country. But it's a big gamble. Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally party has been on the rise for years, capitalizing on fears and frustration over issues like immigration and crime and now inflation. It's never been stronger. Polls put it in first place with the left coalition in second and Macron's centrist party in third.

RASCOE: And you've been out reporting on reaction to the National Rally party's potential victory, right?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. And the people who are really the most fearful of it are living in suburban areas, a lot of immigrant communities. And I went yesterday to a suburb outside of Paris, where a year ago, a young man was killed at a traffic stop by French police. And that set off riots across the country, and people from all ages and backgrounds came out yesterday to mark that anniversary. Let's listen to what they told me.

A silent march got underway in the Paris suburb of Nanterre for 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, who was shot by police at a traffic stop here a year ago. His killing, caught on surveillance camera, set off a week of riots around the country in immigrant neighborhoods like this one, where people say they suffer discrimination and police brutality. Twenty-six-year-old Emma Lace has come to say they won't forget Nahel.

EMMA LACE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We're here to pay homage to Nahel, who was assassinated by the racist police of France," she says. "We're also here to fight against racism and the extreme right. And tomorrow we're going to vote."

Forty-seven-year-old Hyat Hammoumraoui is one of millions of French people whose parents or grandparents came from Algeria. She says she is very uneasy over the anti-immigrant discourse of Marine Le Pen's party.

HYAT HAMMOUMRAOUI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "They just want to please their electorate, which knows nothing about economics," she says. "So it's all about putting foreigners out. That's the only thing that interests them."

Like many, lawyer Aurore Sobert says she will support the leftist coalition countering the far right. The New Popular Front named itself after the historic Front Populaire that came together to counter extremists in 1936, just a few years before the Nazi collaborationist government of Marechal Petain.

AURORE SOBERT: We're really scared. We know in France what is the extremist - the far right - because of the Petain period and the Nazis. So I'm going to vote tomorrow, of course, for the left.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOUNIA MARZOUK: (Speaking French).

RASCOE: The march is led by Nahel's mother, Mounia Marzouk, who describes the pain of losing her son. She fears running into the police officer who claims he shot him in self-defense. She urges everyone to vote, or such violence against minorities will only grow worse.

The National Rally party was created in 1972 by Marine Le Pen's father. Many say she has radically changed it after taking over in 2011, making it more moderate and mainstream. No one here believes that. Emmanuelle Corot says a win by the National Rally could be terrible in places like Nanterre.

EMMANUELLE COROT: We are, I think, more than 100 of nationalities here. So the people here are living quite together in peace and with respect. And I think that maybe tomorrow, this would be broken.

RASCOE: This crowd blames Macron for the situation France is in and not just because he called an election he didn't have to. Caroline Gibert says Macron has been inching closer to the far right with his policies for years.

CAROLINE GIBERT: He decided a politic very near from extreme right regarding immigration, and the ideas from extreme right became more and more acceptable for many people.

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: People in this crowd say the French have always come together to block the far right from power, and they're hoping they will this time, too.

RASCOE: Eleanor, thank you for that reporting. Again, the French vote today in these parliamentary elections - when are the results expected?

BEARDSLEY: We're going to have them around 8 p.m. local time, when the polls close. There is a second-round vote, Ayesha, on July 7 for today's top vote-getters, but this first round is really a test of the strength of the far right.

RASCOE: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, thank you so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.