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Joy on France's streets as voters turn out in record numbers to deny far-right victory

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

French voters turned out in record numbers to reject the far right, proving pollsters wrong. The surprise outcome came a month after President Emmanuel Macron gambled early on in legislative elections. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: People gathered Sunday night in Paris' Place de la Republique as the first results were announced.

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: The crowds erupted as TV screens showed the left-wing coalition in first place, despite polls predicting the far right would win. But Marine Le Pen's National Rally placed last behind President Emmanuel Macron's Centrist coalition. Twenty-seven-year-olds Paula Zhustein and Alexandra Gigraf are hugging.

ALEXANDRA GIGRAF: Oh, my God. We are super-happy. It's amazing.

BEARDSLEY: Were you scared?

GIGRAF: Yes, we were very scared and glad we all came together against the far right.

BEARDSLEY: As the plaza begins to fill, vendors set up barbecues to grill sausages. Chants of, everyone hates Bardella, rise up from the crowd. They're referring to 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, the new head of the far-right National Rally, who would have likely become France's next prime minister had the party done better.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: Art teacher Cecile Pallisere came out with her daughter to celebrate.

CECILE PALLISERE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "France does not deserve crazy, racist xenophobes like them," she said. "We are a nation made of lots of colors and cultures, and that's our richness and beauty. It's about generosity and sharing, and I'm so happy I want to hug everyone."

The lightning campaign - barely a month - was ugly. Fifty candidates and campaigners were attacked verbally and physically, according to the interior minister. Public debate took a dark turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARIM RISSOULI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Karim Rissouli, a journalist working for public broadcaster France 5, read out a threatening letter he received at his home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RISSOULI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The reason for the National Rally vote is not the retirement age or the economy," the letter read. "It's that the French are sick and tired of North Africans like you," the writer said, using a racist term.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JORDAN BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The far-right leader Bardella blamed Macron and the leftists for their loss. In many three-way runoff races, the left or center candidate withdrew so as not to split the anti-far-right vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Bardella called the arrangement dangerous and unnatural and said it had thwarted the true ambitions of the French people. Analysts say creating a coalition government will take cool heads and cooperation and time, maybe weeks. Macron asked his prime minister, Gabriel Attal, to stay on, meanwhile, to ensure stability as the country prepares to host the Olympic games. The reality of governing will be hard, but for now, the French are celebrating. Cynthia Sunderahm was born in the French Caribbean.

CYNTHIA SUNDERAHM: So for me today, it was very important to be here because, you know, we arrived in a point that there is so much racism in France that every people should be concerned.

BEARDSLEY: They were. At 67%, turnout for the second round set records.

SUNDERAHM: I think that last week people realized the danger.

BEARDSLEY: But Sunderahm says the celebration will be short. We came together to beat the far right for now, she says, but we have to keep fighting because they're stronger than ever before. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC TUCKER SONG, "FWM FT. FRE$H") 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
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.