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

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

MONTREAL — Large numbers of French people are expected to descend on Montreal on Saturday for the first round of France’s parliamentary elections, spurred to the polls by the threat of a rising far-right party and its allies leading the charge.

MONTREAL — Large numbers of French people are expected to show up in Montreal on Saturday for the first round of France’s parliamentary elections. They went to the polls because of the threat of a rising far-right party and its allies that are leading in the polls in their own country.

Quebec is home to 260,000 French citizens, 200,000 of whom live in Montreal. According to the French government, they constitute the largest population of French citizens outside mainland France, and well over a quarter of registered voters in North America.

France’s electoral system allows citizens living in 11 different districts abroad to each elect a deputy to the 577-seat National Assembly. French citizens in Montreal are in the same district as French citizens living in the United States, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. On Saturday, they will choose from nine candidates, ranging from French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance Party to the anti-immigrant National Rally that is poised to win the most seats.

Marie Lapierre, the French consul general in Montreal, expects turnout in this election in the city to be twice as high as in 2022.

“In the last parliamentary election in 2022, we had a (turnout) of about 25 percent of voters. This time we have prepared for more… we are prepared for a (turnout) of about 50 percent,” she said.

“There is a very large mobilization from the French community that was really willing to help us organize the vote,” Lapierre said.

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

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

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

“You see placards and posters and people handing out pamphlets on the streets of Montreal for an election that’s happening in France, so in that sense it’s significant,” he said.

The elections are an exceptional moment in France’s political history. Macron called early elections earlier this month after his party suffered a crushing defeat by the far right in the European Parliament vote. The first round, on Saturday, could produce the country’s first far-right government since the Nazi occupation in World War II — or no majority at all.

The outcome of the vote, after the second round on July 7 and an exceptionally short campaign, remains highly uncertain as three major political blocs compete: the far-right Rassemblement National, Macron’s centrist alliance and the New Popular Front coalition, which also includes centre-left, green and far-left forces.

According to Mérand, the main candidates for Montreal voters are centrist and left-wing parties.

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

In 2022, a left-wing alliance won big among Montreal’s French voters, with Macron’s party coming in second with 25 percent of the city’s French residents, and the Rassemblement National getting two percent. With the votes of people in the United States and elsewhere in the district, however, Macron’s candidate took the seat.

Chedly Belkhodja, a professor at Concordia University’s School of Public and Community Affairs, attributes the rising interest among voters to a historic battle in polarized French society.

“These elections perhaps show a side of France that we have not seen for many, many years, namely the rise of the far right,” he said, adding that parties that used to be on the political fringe have become more normal and mainstream in recent years have become.

One of the candidates Franco-Montrealers can choose from is Olivier Piton, based in Washington, DC, who is a member of Les Républicains, the center-right party to which former President Nicolas Sarkozy belonged. Piton says he is the best candidate to represent his constituents in North America, whose concerns are different from those of French citizens on the mainland.

“Now we have to focus on what is really important to us… how can we defend our rights as French citizens, as residents of Canada or the US,” he said.

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

“I think there is something that unites the French who live in Canada and the United States. It is that we are often forgotten by the state in France, even though we are citizens at the same level as them. So what I would like want to do is represent the voices of the French here,” he said.

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

— With files from The Associated Press.

Joe Bongiorno, The Canadian Press