French far right, Macron camp clash over Le Pen army warning

The election risks being a new disaster for Macron (Odd ANDERSEN)
The election risks being a new disaster for Macron (Odd ANDERSEN)

Tensions soared Thursday between supporters of Emmanuel Macron and the French far right three days ahead of legislative elections, after its longtime leader Marine Le Pen cast doubt on the president's ability to act as head of the armed forces.

The far-right National Rally (RN) is tipped to win the election, potentially giving Le Pen's party the post of prime minister for the first time in its history in a tense "cohabitation" with Macron.

Three days before the first round of the vote on June 30, Macron's centrist alliance is battling to make up ground. But opinion polls suggest it will come third behind the RN and a left-wing coalition, the New Popular Front (NFP).

The RN party chief, Jordan Bardella, 28, would have a chance to lead a government as prime minister.

But he has insisted he would do so only if his party wins an absolute majority of the 577 seats in the National Assembly after the second round of voting on July 7.

Friends and foes of Macron alike are still scratching their heads over why the president dissolved the lower house of parliament and called new elections in the aftermath of his party's heavy defeat in this month's EU Parliament vote.

Le Pen told the regional Telegramme daily that the president's title as commander in chief of the armed forces was "honorific, because it's the prime minister who holds the purse strings".

- Le Pen's 'arrogance' -

In a televised debate, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said that Le Pen had sent a "clear message" by indicating that if the RN wins the election "there will be a kind of dispute between the prime minister and president over who is commander-in-chief of the army".

"It is a very serious message for the security of France," he said.

But Bardella said in the debate he would "not let Russian imperialism absorb an allied state like Ukraine".

He said he was also opposed to sending longer range missiles to Ukraine that could hit Russian territory "and place France and the French in a situation of co-belligerence".

"My compass is the interest of France and the French," said Bardella.

Attending a European summit in Brussels, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was confident that whatever the composition of France's next government, it would be pro-European and independent from Russian influence.

"We believe that the French will continue to support Ukraine regardless of the political situation," Zelensky told AFP in written comments.

Macron has insisted he will serve out the remainder of his second term until it expires in 2027, no matter which party emerges on top in the coming legislative contest.

Le Pen, whom opponents have long accused of having too cosy a relationship with the Kremlin, scents that this could be her best-ever chance to win the Elysee Palace after three previous attempts.

- 'Wasn't going to turn around' -

When he called the snap vote after a June 9 European Parliament election drubbing by the RN, Macron had hoped to present voters with a stark choice about whether to hand France to the far right.

An Ipsos poll published in Le Monde predicted the RN would win 36 percent of the vote, the NFP 29 percent and Macron's alliance just 19.5 percent.

"It (the RN) can not only envisage a relative majority, but we cannot exclude, far from it, an absolute majority," Brice Teinturier, deputy director of Ipsos, told AFP.

The televised debate, where Attal and Bardella were joined by Socialist leader Olivier Faure, was equally ill-tempered as the first such session on Tuesday.

"Whenever you are in difficulty you change the subject," Attal told Bardella. "He is tense this evening, is Mr Attal," said Bardella.

Underscoring the stakes felt by many in France from ethnic minority backgrounds, French basketball superstar Victor Wembanyama said "for me it is important to take a distance from extremes, which are not the direction to take for a country like ours".

Acclaimed black French filmmaker Alice Diop meanwhile told the Liberation newspaper that having the far right in government would be "not only a moral discomfort but a real fear".

In a rare comment on domestic politics in France by its neighbour, Germany's Finance Minister Christian Lindner said it would be a "tragedy" for France's finances if the elections returned a government that increased the country's large debt pile.