French candidates bow out in bid to block far-right

By Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon

PARIS (Reuters) -Opponents of France's National Rally (RN) stepped up their bid to block the far-right party from power on Tuesday as more candidates agreed to pull out of this weekend's run-off election to avoid splitting the anti-RN vote.

More than 200 candidates have confirmed they will not stand in Sunday's second-round for France's 577-seat national parliament, according to local media estimates. Others have until 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) to make their choice.

Marine Le Pen's RN came out well ahead in Sunday's first-round vote after President Emmanuel Macron's gamble on a snap election backfired, leaving his centrist camp in a lowly third place behind the RN and a hastily formed left-wing alliance.

But even before the manoeuvring of the last 24 hours to create a "republican front" to block the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic party, it was far from clear the RN could win the 289 seats needed for a majority.

Pollsters calculated the first round put the RN on track for anything between 250-300 seats. But that was before the tactical withdrawals and cross-party calls for voters to back whichever candidate was best placed to defeat the local RN rival.

"The match is not over. We must mobilise all our forces," the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, told France 2.

The RN is hostile to further European Union integration and would cut funding to the EU. Human rights groups have raised concerns about how its "national preference" and anti-migrant policies would apply to ethnic minorities, while economists question whether its hefty spending plans are fully funded.

In Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called for pro-EU parties to do more to address the concerns of ordinary voters and counter rising nationalism after talks with his German counterpart Olaf Scholz.

Financial markets gained on Monday on relief that the far-right had not performed better, but the reaction has been muted by the knowledge that a hung parliament would also risk policy paralysis for the rest of Macron's presidency till 2027.


There was initial confusion over whether Macron's allies would stand down in local contests in favour of better-placed rival candidates if they came from the radical left-wing France Unbowed (LFI) party of Jean-Luc Melenchon.

However Macron on Monday told a closed-door meeting of ministers at the Elysee Palace that the top priority was blocking the RN from power and that LFI candidates could be endorsed if necessary.

The "republican front" has worked before, such as in 2002 when voters of all stripes rallied behind Jacques Chirac to defeat Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, in a presidential contest.

However, it is not certain voters these days are willing to follow guidance from political leaders on where to place their vote, while Marine Le Pen's efforts to soften the image of her party has made it less of a pariah for millions.

A survey by pollster Ifop showed a small majority of those who voted mainstream conservative in the first round would back the left-wing candidate best placed to beat an RN rival in the second round - unless that candidate was from Melenchon's LFI.

Le Pen on Tuesday repeated her assertion that the RN would not try to form a government if it did not have a workable majority in parliament, but added that could also include by reaching out to allies if the RN itself fell short of 289 seats.

"We cannot agree to form a government if we cannot act. That would be the worst of betrayals of our voters," she told France Inter radio.

Assuming no group has a clear majority after Sunday, politicians across the spectrum have proposed various ways of proceeding to see out the remainder of Macron's presidency.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal suggested mainstream right, left and centre parties could form ad hoc alliances to vote through individual pieces of legislation in the new parliament.

Xavier Bertrand, a senior member of the centre-right Republicans (LR) party, called on Tuesday for a "provisional government" to run France until the next presidential election.

In a foretaste of the sour mood that would prevail in the event of a powersharing "cohabitation" between Macron and an RN-led government, Le Pen referred to media speculation that he was planning to make key public sector appointments aimed at preventing the RN from implementing its policies.

While not saying she had any evidence that was the case, Le Pen said any such move would amount to an "administrative coup". In a statement, Macron's office said only that discussions on such appointments had been held at weekly cabinet meetings for 66 years and there was no plans to change that arrangement.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon; Writing and additional reporting by Mark John and Michel Rose; Editing by Alex Richardson, Alexandra Hudson)