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Macron's party faces competition from the far left for control of French parliament

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron recently won a second term, beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But if Macron wants to enact his agenda, he has to keep his majority in parliament in legislative elections this month. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports that, this time, Macron's party is facing stiff competition from the far left.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Legislative elections are so important to a French president's term that they're often referred to as the third round of the presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEAN-LUC MELENCHON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Macron is now feeling the heat from charismatic, far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came in a close third behind Marine Le Pen in the first round of April's presidential vote. Melenchon has now assembled a leftist coalition to battle Macron's party for control of parliament. That's quite a feat, says Corinne Mellul, who teaches political science at Sciences Po University.

CORINNE MELLUL: He achieved something that all of the left-wing parties put together were not able to achieve before the presidential election, which is that he was able to create a common list uniting all left-wing parties.

BEARDSLEY: The coalition, called the New Popular Environmental and Social Union - or la NUPES - is made up of three leftist parties plus the Green Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELENCHON: (Non-English language spoken).

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MELENCHON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Clever, funny, a former professor and a brilliant orator, Melenchon has been called a Gallic Hugo Chavez. He says he wants to become France's next prime minister and take the country in a new direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELENCHON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "In this 21st century, a strange God called the market is telling us what's good and bad and dictates our behavior," he tells the rapt crowd, "and we see the disastrous results."

Melenchon's message about climate change and inequality in society has also rallied millions of young people, like Toma Lucais (ph) and Mel Pichon (ph), who say he's a modern-day Robin Hood.

TOMA LUCAIS: This economy kills the planet, and we want to change the system, and we want a better distribution of money.

MEL PICHON: Basically, Macron is implementing measures that are very dangerous for the poor people. Everything is being put on the market. It's the destruction of the public system.

BEARDSLEY: Polls show la NUPES' coalition is neck-and-neck with the president's party in legislative races across the country. If la NUPES get a majority of the 577 seats, Macron will have to name Melenchon prime minister, and the leftists would control the agenda, says political scientist Mellul.

MELLUL: We'd be looking at an enormous political crisis, where you have a president from one party and a prime minister from the opposition. And in that case, Macron would be basically stuck for the next five years.

BEARDSLEY: That situation, called cohabitation, has only happened three times in the last 65 years. But even if they don't get an outright majority, la NUPES will likely become a strong opposition in a parliament that has been dominated by Macron's party over the last five years. It's very simple, says 64-year-old Melenchon supporter Sylvie Eroux (ph) after his rally.

SYLVIE EROUX: (Non-English language spoken, laughter).

BEARDSLEY: (Non-English language spoken).

EROUX: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "What we don't want is to become a country like yours," she says, "where people are left to die in the streets, there's no health care for all and Black people are treated badly. That's not our conception of society in France."

The French go to the polls to choose their parliament in a first-round vote this weekend. The runoff is June 19.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.