The far right seemed to have a lock on France's legislative elections. Here's why it didn't it win

PARIS (AP) — Seemingly so close, and yet still so far away.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen looked to be nearer to power than ever last week after her National Rally party, strengthened by new allies, triumphed in the opening round of legislative elections. Its first place wasn't a hole-in- one but looked like an impressive position to possibly win or get close to an absolute parliamentary majority in the decisive runoff.

But what Le Pen hoped would be a watershed victory turned into another setback. Although her party won more National Assembly seats than ever, it yet again hit a wall of voters who don't believe the National Rally should govern France or has shed its links to racism, antisemitism and the country's still painful World War II past of collaboration with Nazi Germany.

“The tide is rising,” Le Pen said. “It did not rise high enough this time.”

France's ‘Republican front’ again blocks Le Pen's way

This was by no means the first time that French voters and the far-right's political rivals maneuvered strategically between voting rounds to block its path in a runoff.

The same thing happened most notably to Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the presidential elections of 2002. The fiery ex-paratrooper, a co-founder of what was then called the National Front, which initially included Nazi-era collaborators, had multiple convictions for antisemitic hate speech, having repeatedly described the Holocaust's gas chambers as “a detail" of WWII history.

Yet he stunned France and its partners in Europe and beyond by advancing from the election's first round into the winner-takes-all runoff against Jacques Chirac. There, horrified French voters massively said, “Non!” They overwhelming rejected Le Pen, with even leftists voting to put Chirac, a conservative, in the presidential Elysee Palace.

That so-called “Republican front," the process of French voters temporarily putting their political allegiances aside solely to keep the far right from power, has worked repeatedly since. It helped defeat Marine Le Pen in two presidential runoffs, in 2017 and 2022, losing to Emmanuel Macron in both, and again blocked her party's path to hoped-for victory in the legislative runoffs this weekend.

Macron's narrower but still comfortable victory in 2022 and a breakthrough for Le Pen's by-then rebranded National Rally in follow-up legislative elections, where it won an unprecedented 89 seats, were both interpreted as signals that the “Republican front” was starting to crack and that it might just be a question of time before it gives way completely.

But it functioned with surprising effectiveness Sunday and in the week leading up to the decisive vote. A coalition of left-wing parties that banded together for these elections to counter the far-right surge and Macron's centrist alliance withdrew dozens of candidates who advanced to round two but did not look like winning.

The strategy helped concentrate votes on remaining candidates in head-to-head runoff contests against far-right opponents, contributing to defeats for hundreds of them. The National Rally and its allies won 104 runoffs — fewer than 1-in-4 of those they contested and way short of their expectations.

Their total of 143 first- and second-round victories still gives the National Rally an unprecedented presence in the 577-seat National Assembly. But it's still only the third-largest bloc, behind the leftist coalition and Macron's alliance, in the new and hung parliament where none came close to an absolute majority.

Jordan Bardella, Le Pen's 28-year-old protégé who she'd been hoping to install as prime minister, grumbled that "the alliance of dishonor” between the National Rally's rivals kept it from power.

National Rally spokesman Laurent Jacobelli spoke of “a democratic hold-up."

Pollster Brice Teinturier said the “Republican front" was “even more powerful” than had been anticipated, showing that despite Le Pen's yearslong efforts to sanitize the image of her party, it still “causes fear, worry that has mobilized people.”

“They repel more than they attract,” said French analyst François Heisbourg, who specializes in defense and security questions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"And the closer they get to the goal, the more the repelling factor weighs in."

Voters react against National Rally ‘casting errors’

The National Rally ran a polished campaign heading into the elections, toning down its platform and rhetoric and pushing social-media heavyweight Bardella to the fore.

But scrutiny of the party's candidates by French media and concerned citizens raised embarrassing questions about their suitability to potentially serve as lawmakers.

After Ludivine Daoudi qualified for round two, winning nearly 20% of the vote in her Normandy district in the first round, the National Rally announced it was withdrawing her when a photo of her wearing a Nazi officer’s cap, with a swastika, emerged on social media.

Some candidates struggled to answer elementary policy questions. French media background checks on others found that one woman once held a town employee hostage at gunpoint and that another appeared ineligible to serve as a lawmaker because he was subject to a court-ordered guardianship.

Others faced scrutiny for right-wing extremist affiliations and unsavory comments. The National Rally stuck by a candidate who'd reportedly once tweeted that “gas brought justice to the victims of the Shoah,” saying his post was taken out of context.

“We made some mistakes, we acknowledge it,” said National Rally lawmaker Bruno Clavet, who won his seat in northern France outright in round one.

"We made some casting errors, regional party officials did not do their job properly,” he said.

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AP journalist Diane Jeantet in Paris contributed to this report.

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