'Fear' of far right outweighs voters' qualms over former French PM

Former Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne finished behind a far-right candidate in last week's first round of voting (Lou Benoist)
Former Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne finished behind a far-right candidate in last week's first round of voting (Lou Benoist)

In her constituency in northern France, former prime minister Elisabeth Borne is counting on support from left-wing voters to hold her seat, even if many refuse to forget her role in passing a controversial pension reform.

Campaigning at a market in the Calvados department of Normandy, Borne hopes to convince voters that backing her on July 7 will prevent the far right from taking power after she finished behind her National Rally (RN) opponent in last week's first round of elections.

The former head of government took 28 percent of the vote, ahead of left-wing candidate Noe Gauchard, who garnered 23 percent, but behind RN rival Nicolas Calbrix, who secured 38 percent.

Gauchard is now one of the more than 200 centrist and left-wing candidates who have withdrawn from France's legislative election run-off, a move President Emmanuel Macron hopes will prevent the RN from winning an absolute majority.

"We're going to save Borne," Socialist leader Olivier Faure told BFM television, saying he supported Gauchard's decision to drop out.

Borne was named by President Emmanuel Macron in May 2022 as France's second woman prime minister but lost her job in a January cabinet shuffle after just one and a half years in the post. When she left office she said there was "still some way to go" for equality for women.

The outcome of the election will see if postwar France elects its first far-right government or enters into an era of potentially paralysing coalition politics.

The centrist government is hoping that left-wing backing for candidates like Borne will prevent the RN from gaining an absolute majority.

But many voters have not forgotten Borne's move while prime minister to ram a Macron-backed pension overhaul through parliament without a vote despite months of mass protests against it.

The overhaul pushed back the official retirement age to 64 from 62.

"The pension reform really sticks in my throat," said Michel, a 66-year-old at the market in Villers-Bocage, adding that "many left-wing voters will struggle to vote for her".

Despite that, he told AFP he would still vote for Borne as a bulwark against the RN, which he says "pits the French against foreigners".

-'What's the point?'-

Both Borne and her RN rival Calbrix mingled at the market, hoping to sway undecided voters.

"Our goal is to avoid an absolute majority for the National Rally," Borne said, adding that "voters are aware of what is at stake".

The RN dominated the first round of voting overall, presenting the party of Marine Le Pen with the prospect of forming a government and her protege Jordan Bardella, 28, taking the post of premier in a tense "cohabitation" with Macron.

Even so, some in the crowd ignored the former prime minister or cracked jokes at her expense.

"When an issue is forced through, we don't like it," said one person in the crowd, referring to Borne's decision to pass the pension overall without a vote.

Passing out leaflets, Calbrix did not escape unscathed.

"You're wasting paper," said one passer-by who refused his handout.

A clothes vendor shouted at the RN team standing near his stall: "Two euros a litre for diesel, we're dying. What's the point of elections?" he said, referencing a price equivalent to around $8 per gallon.

-'A disaster'-

Some voters, like 29-year-old Rudy Lamartin, a business owner, are still torn on how to cast their ballots.

"We all know the RN is far right," he said, but he believes the party "just wants to fight crime".

"There's no problem" in the town of 4,000 people, Lamartin added, but when he watches TV, he sees "drug trafficking everywhere".

At 76, Serge Guillard said he would vote for Borne not out of conviction but over concerns about rising xenophobia.

"What's happening is serious," he said, claiming that the RN "is a racist party".

Claude, a retired schoolteacher, echoed those sentiments and like many voters blamed Macron for putting the country in this position.

"It's a disaster... in two years Macron has messed everything up," the fellow 76-year-old said. "Bardella as prime minister, that's going to keep me awake at night."

"Even though I'm a leftist, I voted for Borne in the first round to put up a roadblock... and I'll do the same on Sunday", she said.