Armed with a bright smile and a fistful of campaign flyers, Sarah Legrain works her way through the Curial market in northeastern Paris’ 19th arrondissement, where shoppers banter and bargain in North African Arabic.
She accepts a slice of watermelon from a vendor, and chats with a veiled Tunisian mother. A man in a white track vest politely rebuffs her overture but other shoppers pause to listen to her arguments for a more socially minded, greener France.
Five years ago, the 36-year-old high schoolteacher narrowly lost her bid for a seat in the National Assembly, the lower house of France’s parliament, representing one of the city’s poorest and most ethnically diverse districts.
Today, Legrain is confident she will win, as part of a new far-left alliance aimed at upending centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s second term, in two-round legislative elections that start Sunday.
“People feel abandoned by the politicians, they struggle to pay their rent and feed their children,” Legrain said of the 19th, a neighborhood that includes both well-kept middle-class homes and projects covered in peeling paint. “I’m saying, we can turn the page. We can redistribute wealth another way.”
Recent polls find Legrain’s leftist alliance narrowly leading the race with more than a quarter of intended voters — just ahead of Macron’s Ensemble, or “Together” coalition.
While Macron’s centrists may ultimately win the largest number of National Assembly seats, the left-wing New Ecological and Social Popular Union, or NUPES, threatens to steal the president’s majority, making it difficult for him to push through tough reforms.
“The most probable scenario right now is that nobody gets a real majority,” said analyst Lisa Thomas-Darbois of the Montaigne Institute, a Paris-based think tank.
“If that happens, in my opinion, we’ll have a situation in which the government’s entire agenda will be blocked,” she added.
A political coup and discontent
Powering the NUPES is septuagenarian firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon and his France Unbowed party, which pulled a rare coup last month in uniting the country’s diverse and often squabbling left, from the Communists to the center-left Socialists, for the first time in years.
Anger and disenfranchisement are also driving the NUPES rise in places like the 19th, analysts say, where voters feel Macron’s presidency has left them behind. Despite Macron’s April reelection, voter abstention was high, and many French only backed him to block the far right.
“We’ve had to live with five years of Macron, leaving him in power would be a nightmare,” said 32-year-old city hall worker Samy Bouhaka.
“I’m voting NUPES. On social and environmental issues, it’s the only party that really represents us,” he said.
Legrain, a France Unbowed candidate, ticks off other factors behind the resurgent left: anger at Macron’s efforts to raise the retirement age to 65 from 62, intensifying inflation with the war in Ukraine, a perceived lack of support for hospitals, and unpopular education reforms.
“What I saw in my five years of teaching is the scorn toward the country’s young people,” said Legrain, a teacher in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a working-class, immigrant-heavy Paris suburb that has seen youth rioting over police violence in recent years.
“France is really divided between those who have won with Emmanuel Macron in terms of purchasing power and better living standards, and those who haven’t experienced these gains,” said analyst Thomas-Darbois. “These French will seek the political extremes.”
A polarized France?
Also on the rise is support for the far-right National Rally party, projected to capture up to 50 of the National Assembly’s 577 seats — an all-time high. But that dwarfs the far left’s possible win of nearly half of the overall total.
If that happens, France Unbowed leader Melenchon wants to force Macron to choose him as prime minister, an unlikely but not impossible outcome.
It would not be the first time France has seen a “cohabitation” government, with a president and prime minister from different parties. But few have been so politically polarized.
Beyond opposing many of Macron’s domestic reforms, Melenchon is skeptical of the European Union and hostile to NATO, sharply breaking with France’s globalist leader, although his positions are not shared by other key members of the NUPES alliance. The left-wing bloc wants to freeze prices for basic goods, increase the minimum wage and impose tougher environmental policies.
Dozens of economists recently signed a petition defending the NUPES economic program. Others dismiss it as unrealistic.
Hours before the first round, the outcome of these legislative elections is up for grabs.
Polls find more than a quarter of voters are undecided. Experts fear a high abstention rate.
“Left or right, they always promise a lot before the elections, but once they’re elected, we get nothing at all,” said health care worker Juliette Schubler, after chatting with Legrain at the market.
Another shopper, retiree Alain Fainac, had made up his mind.
“I’m voting Macron,” said Fainac of the president’s party. “He’s not fantastic. But France is a difficult country to govern.”