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Voters in France return to the polls for a second round of voting on Sunday

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The second round of voting Sunday in France will choose the next prime minister, in effect, and the party that will control the French legislature. The far-right party of Marine Le Pen led the first round. French elites have long considered this anti-immigrant and nationalist party too extreme to govern. And now they have a shot after they pulled ahead of the left and also ahead of President Emmanuel Macron's centrist alliance, which was a distant third in the voting. The interior minister says he worries that reactions on Sunday could lead to mayhem. Well, let's bring in Sylvain Bourmeau. He's a professor at the Sorbonne University and also edits an analysis and opinion website called AOC Media. Welcome.

SYLVAIN BOURMEAU: Thank you.

INSKEEP: For an American audience, what does the National Rally party stand for that would be so divisive in France?

BOURMEAU: Well, it's the extreme right. I mean, the election on Sunday is a very crucial one. It is the opportunity for the extreme right to get to power for the first time in the French Republic's history - it means since 1789. Because what happened during the World War II was that the extreme right got to power without elections.

INSKEEP: Ah, because they collaborated with the - with Nazi Germany, which had defeated France in a war.

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BOURMEAU: And people were elected, and then they changed - moved to other parties. That's how it happened.

INSKEEP: OK. And so they would - would they have the power with a majority or as part of a governing coalition in France's legislature? Would they have a power to - the power to change France's approach to immigration or change France's approach to the war in Ukraine or anything else?

BOURMEAU: Oh, they would have the power for almost everything, you know, because when the Parliament is not on the same side as the president, it is the Parliament who holds the power in France. It's a very strange political system, but that's how it works. And we experienced it earlier, but not with the extreme right.

INSKEEP: OK. Now, we are facing a situation where there's a second round of elections. This is a little complicated to explain to Americans, but you had multiple candidates in the first round. Not everybody gets to the second round. You had some minimum vote. But there are cases where there were three candidates - a left candidate, a right candidate, a centrist candidate. Some of them are withdrawing from the left and the right. What's the point of that?

BOURMEAU: A lot of them actually are withdrawing, hopefully, because that will prevent the extreme right probably to win on Sunday. That means that people, whether they are from the left or the right, they - most of them agree on the fact that the extreme right is a different kind of a party. I mean, they should not be part of the Republic. So they prefer to withdraw when they arrived in third place to make sure that the extreme-right candidate will not be elected.

INSKEEP: OK. So the left and the center, the more conservative but not far-right people, they can all vote for one candidate, whoever seems to be the strongest candidate. When you run the numbers, is that going to be sufficient to deny a majority to the National Rally?

BOURMEAU: Well, this is not sure. I mean, it's a very suspended election, and we will see on Sunday night. The most probable situation will be that no party has an overall majority. They will have to talk to each other. So maybe there will be a coalition government between the left and the right - the classical right, the Macron right.

INSKEEP: Right. I just have to ask, the interior minister is worried about violence, granting that some people might be upset by the election result. Why would there be violence following a democratic result? This is an election.

BOURMEAU: Well, you've seen what happened in the Capitol in the U.S. I mean, the extreme right party is a very violent one. It's a racist party, and they already started to be violent in the streets in the recent days, actually.

INSKEEP: Meaning that the violence would be feared from that side or from the left?

BOURMEAU: No. I think the violence is to be feared from the extreme right. The left will - of course, if the extreme right wins the election, the left will be in the street demonstrating, but I'm pretty sure there will be no violence against individuals, whereas it happens with the extreme right.

INSKEEP: Analyst Sylvain Bourmeau, who is a professor at the Sorbonne. Thanks so much for your time.

BOURMEAU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.