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French-Montrealers vote in ‘historic’ election amid surge in far-right

MONTREAL — Thousands of French nationals cast ballots in Montreal on Saturday as part of the first round of France's parliamentary elections, which has seen a surging far-right party and its allies take the lead in polls released back home.
A French citizen, left, places their ballot in a ballot box as they turned out to vote in France's national elections, at the Centre Mont-Royal in Montreal, Saturday, June 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joe Bongiorno

MONTREAL — Thousands of French nationals cast ballots in Montreal on Saturday as part of the first round of France's parliamentary elections, which has seen a surging far-right party and its allies take the lead in polls released back home.

Marie Fournier was motivated to vote by what she calls a rising extremism across the political spectrum in her native country.

“Every vote counts because it’s a big chaos in France right now … It feels like it’s the beginning of a war, like an ideological war,” Fournier said in an interview held at a voting centre set up in downtown Montreal.

She is not alone in voicing anxiety about what lies ahead for France.

Quebec is home to 260,000 French citizens, 200,000 of whom live in Montreal. They form the largest population of French nationals outside mainland France, and more than one-quarter of registered voters in North America, according to the French government.

The French electoral system allows its citizens living abroad in 11 different districts to each elect a deputy to the National Assembly, which has 577 seats. French citizens in Montreal belong to the same district as French people living in the United States, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. On Saturday, they will choose between nine candidates ranging from French President Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance Party to the National Rally, an anti-immigrant party poised to gain the most seats.

Victor Martin said Saturday he hasn’t always voted in the past. But this time the situation felt different, he said, noting each election seems more critical than the last.

“You have to use this opportunity, this right and this duty,” said Martin, who has lived in Canada for the past seven years.

Both he and Fournier cast their ballots for the New Popular Front, an alliance of left-wing parties that has vowed to prevent the National Rally from taking power.

Céline Volff did not want to share who she voted for, but like the other voters the Canadian Press spoke to, she cited the political turmoil in France as the reason she turned up to have her say in the elections.

“Even while living abroad, it’s important to voice what we want for the direction for France,” she said.

On Thursday, Marie Lapierre, France’s Consul general in Montreal, said she thought the participation rate in the city this election would double what it was in 2022.

“We had a (turnout) of about 25 per cent of voters," she said of the last time expats went to the polls. "This time we have prepared for more … we are prepared to welcome a (turnout) of about 50 per cent.”

“There is a very high mobilization from the French community who was really ready to help us organize the vote,” Lapierre said.

Yan Niesing, president of the Union Française de Montréal, an organization that helps French nationals settle in the city, called the election "historic."

“Everyone wants to have their say," he said.

Frédéric Mérand, a political science professor at the Montreal Centre for International Studies at Université de Montréal, said the level of engagement in the city is unusual for a French election.

“You see placards and posters and people distributing leaflets on the streets of Montreal for an election that's taking place in France, so it is significant in that sense,” he said.

The election is an exceptional moment in France's political history. Macron called the snap election earlier this month following a crushing defeat of his party by the far right in the European parliamentary vote. The first round, on Saturday, could see the country’s first far-right government since the Second World War Nazi occupation — or no majority emerging at all.

The outcome of the vote, following the second round on July 7 and an exceptionally brief campaign, remains highly uncertain as three major political blocs are competing: the far-right National Rally, Macron’s centrist alliance and the Popular Front coalition that includes centre-left, greens and hard-left forces.

Mérand said the main contenders for Montreal voters are centrist and left-wing parties.

“All the other candidates are expected to be way, way, way behind,” he said.

In 2022, a left-wing alliance won big among Montreal's French voters in the first round, Macron's party came in second with 25 per cent of the city's French residents, and the National Rally came away with two per cent. However, when combined with the votes cast by those in the United States and elsewhere, Macron's candidate took the seat in the end.

Chedly Belkhodja, a professor at Concordia University’s School of Public and Community Affairs, puts the upswing in voter interest down to a historic contest in France's polarized society.

“This election will show maybe a side of France that has not been seen for many, many years, which is the rise of the far-right,” he said, adding parties that used to be on the political fringe have become more mainstream in recent years.

One of the candidates French-Montrealers can choose from is Olivier Piton, based in Washington D.C., who is with Les Républicains, the centre-right party that former president Nicolas Sarkozy belonged to. Piton says he is the best candidate to represent his constituents in North America, whose concerns differ from French citizens on the mainland.

“Now we need to focus on what is really important for us … how can we defend our rights as French nationals, as residents in Canada or in the U.S.,” he said.

Elias Forneris, candidate for Une Nouvelle Energie pour la France, also resides in the American capital and has spent much of his life in the United States and the United Kingdom. With little time to prepare following Macron’s announcement to dissolve parliament, he has focused most of his campaigning online.

“I think there's something that unites the French people living in Canada and the United States. It's that often times, we're forgotten by the state in France even though we're citizens on the same level as them, so what I'd like to do is be able to represent the voices of French people here,” he said.

This reort by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Joe Bongiorno, The Canadian Press

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